Where do you even start after a game like that? The Wellington Phoenix are now seven games undefeated, tying the club’s record streak, after beating Western Sydney Wanderers late on in Oz. In the dark days of old they’d have been turned over 3-0 in a game like that. Too many fouls and shots against and too much adversity and all of that. But not this Phoenix. This Phoenix won.
I missed the previous game while I was away at the beach. Sorry ‘bout it, but y’all had better pump up that Patreon Page if you want me to be writing while on holiday. So I’ve only seen the highlights and all I can say is that Filip Kurto is amazing and Mandi deserves those three games. The ball was there but so were Vinnie Lia’s ribs. Like, don’t kid yourself too much on that one. We’ll get by.
That meant the Nix went into this game without their best midfielder, so good thing they’ve got another import midfielder who’s been chilling in the backline/on the bench lately in Michal Kopczynski which solves that problem as well as it’s going to be solved. Alex Rufer picked up his fifth yellow against WSW which makes next game a real tricky one as to who starts in the middle with Kopa… Nichols? Singh? Fox? Sam Sutton?... (it’s gotta be Nichols, really – lucky that one’s against Central Coast at home so as cruisy a ride as we’ll get in such circumstances)… but Kopa and Roof turned out to be a pretty excellent pairing for a game which got pretty feisty at times. Two lads who’ll leave a shoulder in if they have to.
Rufer took that even further in the second half when he leaned in to Kwame Yeboah and got a right jab in the small of the back for his troubles. Which drew a yellow for Yeboah and some scrappy responses in our twitter mentions from WSW fans. Stay in your lane, lads. Not interested. The drama was that Rufer stayed on the deck for ages afterwards as if a jab in the small of the back doesn’t hurt. It might not have, he might’ve been being a big ol’ sook to get the VAR involved, but how are you gonna tell that from sitting at home? What I saw was a balled up fist being stabbed into a bloke’s back. The definition of a punch, regardless of how hard it was. Bloody Robbie Slater trying to argue on the comms that Rufer “initiated the contact” was outrageous. Did JFK initiate the contact too? Come on. Rufer wasn’t exactly innocent in the whole affair but he didn’t punch himself. This is a sport where nodding too far with your forehead is considered a headbutt and a red card so please don’t go making excuses for a literal punch. A yellow card was probably fair, it was only a quick jab after all, but if a red one had popped out of the toaster then you couldn’t have argued.
I’m getting off topic a bit but this was an off topic kind of game. The Wanderers were awarded a penalty after about fourteen minutes when Bruce Kamau was apparently chopped down by Louis Fenton, though the replays suggested that there was no contact at all. Kamau didn’t even really appeal, to be fair. Again Robbie Slater seemed to see something that nobody else could and assured us over and over that there was a clip on the heel or something but old mate Video Assistant Referee came to the rescue. Call overturned.
Twenty minutes later the Nix were in the lead, probably a little against the run of play. It felt like a game where the home side were the ones in more control but where the Nix, with fewer chances and less possession, were perhaps a little more threatening. Certainly we got another quality outing from the back four of Andy Durante, Steven Taylor, Tom Doyle and their best bud Filip Kurto. Colonel Kurto as I’ve decided to call him from now on. Also got some classic flailing late irrelevant dives from Kurto to add to the growing collection too. If somebody out there could get an ongoing supercut rolling then I’d share the hell out of that.
Anyway, Louis Ferenc Puskas Fenton got the goal. Yet another example of fullbacks committing forwards, which can so often be the difference between a proactive and reactive team in a formation like this, and Sarpreet Singh’s chipped ball through was delightful. Fenton then outmuscled his marker to control the ball (despite Slater’s assertions that he was left wide open) and slipped it inside the far post for the lead. Lovely work from Fenton, who started this season as the weak link but a few quality performances in a row have fast changed that feeling. Everybody seems to be improving under Mark Rudan, aye.
The lead only last six minutes before Brendan Hamill (I accidentally wrote Mark Hamill at first… use the force!) headed in from a corner. Somehow the Nix left themselves vulnerable from a set piece there. Nobody on either post and when Kurto came rushing out and didn’t get to it first, well, that left an open goal to work with for Hamill and who the hell is missing from there? All good, Rudes, I’ll fix it for ya…
Mark Rudan made a point afterwards about progressions and processes and all that. Something that’s been clear to see all season as the club has improved almost with every game. One of those progressions is the mentality of the dudes out there. Even early on in this season that looked like a huge problem but get a few wins in a row, start scoring goals, and belief comes quicker than people realise.
That’s probably the main thing from this game because another thing that Rudan said was that the fellas didn’t even play that well here. They struggled to keep the ball. They didn’t look as incisive as they have been recently, not in this game and especially not in the previous game from what I’ve seen. It was beginning to feel like next goal wins even with quite a bit of time to go in the second half but then on came Cillian Sheridan who, in about half an hour, has already launched a challenge to Roy Krishna for the grand esteemed title of Wildcard’s Favourite Player. Of course, we don’t need to pick favourites when the pair are already combining like they did for the second goal.
Ughh, so good. The dummy turn from Sheridan, the run from Krishna, the early ball through from Sheridan, the touch round the stranded keeper from Krishna, the deceptively difficult finish from Krishna… that’s counter attacking gold. Roy Krishna we know exactly what he can do. Cillian Sheridan was the opposite, a bit of a blank slate, but what he showed here was enough to think we’ve got a talent on our hands. Not only a talent but a cult hero too. Sheridan… or Shepard as Robbie Slater kept calling him (really can’t emphasise enough how bad he was on the mic this game)… has the full bag of tricks. Good in the air and a target man from set pieces but also very skilled with the ball on the deck. He’s got a rocket of a left boot as he flexed with one shot that sizzled over the crossbar and he’s got the personality to bring out the tricks and flicks in key moments. He played an influential part in both goals that were scored after he came on. Cannot wait to see him starting games.
But first the Nix had to concede again, leaking the lead almost as soon as they got it and once more it came from a set piece. Keanu Baccus’ finish was incredible but that ball got over to him way too easily. He had way too much space. To concede twice from set pieces like this… very un-Rudan. Uncharacteristic from the Phoenix team we’re getting to know and fall back in love with.
No worries, because this Phoenix team also has a new resilience, and how about this for a climactic finish? Two blown leads away from home, we’ll just have to make the third one stick. And they did.
There’s no great wonder to be had about the performance or anything. The greatness of this result was that they didn’t play very well at all. They had to be at their best defensively to keep things from getting ugly and had a little technology to thank in that regard too. Twice they scored lovely goals only to concede almost immediately through set pieces which they probably practice for hours each week. They were missing their best passer in the midfield, no doubt that played into the struggles to keep the ball, plus they were playing on a short turnaround away from home. All the ingredients were there for an excusable defeat and instead they found a way to win.
Western Sydney weren’t at their best either, losing Oriol Riera and Alexander Baumjohann to first half injuries. But the fact is that the Phoenix would never have gotten close last season under these circumstances. There’s just something different about them now. Something Rudan-esque. Something which was perfectly summarised by a moment late in the second half when a player who had been influential in the game refused to let personal crisis get in the way of team priority…
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