Kiwi Keepers, A Missed Penalty, and Another Point Away From Home for the Welly Nix

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They could have lost. They should have won. In the end yet another draw away from home doesn’t do the Wellington Phoenix too much harm. Of course if they’d have beaten the Newcastle Jets on their own turf they’d have really opened up a gap between themselves and seventh place, putting eleven points of delicious buffer in the way, but as wonderful a journey as we’ve been on under Mark Rudan, you still can’t say that his team likes to do things the easy way. Probably the exact opposite, actually.

It wasn’t a surprise when Roy Krishna stepped up to take the penalty. 88th minute and an absolutely frantic game had seen both keepers produce outrageous performances already but a late challenge on Louis Fenton seemed to have given the Welly Nix exactly the shot they’d been searching for. Except Krishna smacked it straight down the middle of the goal and Glen Moss, the old mate, blocked it with a trailing leg. The game ended 1-1 and the Phoenix potentially leave two points unclaimed in the lost and found box.

I had a feeling he was going to miss. It just felt like the wrong situation for him. Penalties are so much about instinct and faith and sometimes you just know that a bloke is going to miss. Cosmic ripples in the vortex of space and time or something like that. Divine providence of the chaotic variety. A shimmer of omnipotence. I knew he was going to miss it and I was begging for Cillian Sheridan to pop up and take it instead.

And from now on he might have to, because Krishna has apparently missed seven out of 14 penalty attempts in the A-League. He’s caught up with a couple on the second effort so it’s not as bad as it seems however I can still recall three misses this season and while Roy’s a better spottie taker than that record suggests… three misses in a season is probably enough. He missed a late one in the 1-0 defeat to Sydney recently too. Penalties are often the sworn property of the team’s top scorer and Krishna has slotted a few crucial ones in his time. But Rudan’s fixation on ‘competition for places’ is all about that vibe of nothing being guaranteed. Tom Doyle was out of the squad entirely this week following some criticism in the post-match presser last week (which wasn’t even that bad a mistake… granted it also wasn’t an isolated incident). Highly doubt that Roy Krishna is taking the next one.

You’d be a bit of a dick to blame him for the result though, just because of the timing of the penalty. This was a wild game from start to finish. Actually it was wild even before the start, with Filip Kurto succumbing to a virus and being ruled out close to kickoff, Oli Sail filling in for his second start of the campaign. I highly doubt that Kurto was ruled out as close to kickoff as it was suggested, pretty sure Mark Rudan woulda known since the morning what (who) was (throwing) up. And I’d bet Ol’ Rudes is exactly the kind of brilliantly petty person who’d wait until the last possible moment to hook Kurto from the starting XI just so that Ernie Merrick didn’t get to prepare for a reserve keeper.

The first twenty minutes were all Phoenix. At one point there was a telly graphic that the Nix had completed 128 passes to 28 for the Jets (possession finished at 59% for WEL – big things). The Nix were clearly not too fussed about the relative hiding they got on the weekend, they came out fired up and full of contagious energy. Mandi hit the post about seven minutes in after some nice work from Libby Cacace. Louis Fenton missed a deceptively difficult follow up, dropping hard at him in front of an open goal. Sure, he’d have expected himself to score… but those bouncy ones are tricky and he had like half a second to adjust his body for it the speed it cannoned back at him. Softer feet next time, lad.

Cacace also pumped a decent effort at goal which Moss saved down low. Then the game descended into some scrappiness. There was Alex Rufer and Daniel Georgievski getting frisky. Mandi seemed to be involved in most of it. Some crunchy fouls and a whole lot for the ref to deal with – Jason Hoffman, Georgievski, Rufer and Ronnie Vargas all got booked within the first 25 mins of the game. It was fun to watch but not so sure it was really in the best interests of the Phoenix, who didn’t need the pace taken out of the game like that. Not entirely sure how Mandi got out of this match without a booking, good on him for that… oh yeah, and Mandi played! Still waiting on the lil bubba so he popped over for a game of footy, fair enough, best wishes to the missus ahead of the miracle of birth.

The descent into grubbiness seemed to spark the Jets into the game and following another impressive save from Moss to deny David Williams’ bouncing header, Newcastle went up the other end and took the lead through some magic from Ronnie Vargas. Completely against the run of play. He left Andy Durante and Steven Taylor, two of the smartest and most experienced defenders in the league, flopping around like fish out of water. A moment of something special from an outstanding player. That drag-back was delightful. Shouldn’t have had time for a second touch after it but still.

Thus the Nix went into the sheds down 1-0. Dominating the game with nothing to show from it, a loss would leave them only five points clear of the Jets and open the door right up again to the top six. It was definitely on the cards. Ernie Merrick had been a clever bugger in that first half, adjusting things on the fly to a back three which better helped them deal with Cacace and Fenton’s overlapping runs. Started to see those two cutting inside instead after that – which eventually earned a goal and a penalty but it was a long time coming. Plus it bulked up the Newcastle midfield, though not quite enough because Ernie still subbed off Matt Ridenton at half-time, replacing him with Ben Kantarovski.

Odd situation with Ridenton, he’s doing great to be playing every week for Newcastle but at the same time he’s been pretty absent both times he’s played against the Phoenix. He was completely overrun by Alex Rufer in this one. Didn’t expect to be writing that sentence when Riddo left for the Jets in the offseason and Rufer’s contract had run all the way down. It was a bummer when Ridenton left, somehow symbolic of the club at the time, yet in the end both he and Rufer ended up in the situations that suited them best. Can’t complain.

Both fellas are kiwi midfielders who’ve been boosted through the ranks but had to wait way too long for opportunities to play regularly. Both have absolutely grabbed those opportunities when they finally came. Sometimes young players just need time to prove themselves, including the trust of their manager to make mistakes and not have it ruin those chances going forwards. Makes you wonder what other fellas are hanging on the fringes ready to step it up.

(Stirring the pot here but you know who rated Alex Rufer before anyone else? Anthony Hudson, lol).

The second half was almost too much. It went end to end and if it weren’t for the gloves of Oli Sail then the Nix might’ve lost it 3-1. Even the highlights package feels like it’s being played on fast forward. The Jets hit the frame of the goal a couple times and Sail got his fingertips involved for a few wicked saves. There you go: Oli Sail. Another fringe bloke showing he’s go the goods when required. Wouldn’t say he has the most refined technique about it all but he kept the ball out of the net, which is what matters. Distribution needs some work too (he’s got a huge boot and he was repeatedly after Roy Krishna on the break and ended up just giving the ball back to the Jets defence), although I liked his willingness to come out of his box to sweep up more than once. This was his best game yet. By a long way. Legit kept the Phoenix in this thing, especially after David Williams had equalised.

Nothing special about the goal, just typical Willo. Fenton chopped it back to him and he plucked it into the bottom corner past Mossy. Fenton won the penalty too so shout out to that lad for being a real force in attack lately, same for Willo with his run of goals. Six in ten games now.

Rudan gave Max Burgess the nod off the bench in place of a tiring Sarpreet Singh, fifteen minutes for him and a huge nod of confidence in him to make the difference in a close game. Rudan wasn’t sitting on a draw here, he later subbed off Mandi to get Cillian Sheridan out there too, Burgess dropping into central midfield and three up top. About as aggressive as it gets with two wingbacks steaming into the attacking third. There was a penalty. There were a few other cracks. There were no more goals.

Sidenote: this team played away in Perth on Saturday night (kickoff at midnight NZT) and were away again in Newcastle the following Thursday. This after a week in which they played three times in seven days, including an away one in Melbourne. They now get a pleasant eight days off to prepare for the Victory at Eden Park… but how about the fact that the Nix were still pushing for a winner on the back of all that, all the way to the final whistle? Mandi’s expecting a baby any day now. Steven Taylor missed the last game with illness. This is a relatively small squad. They’ve played five games in twenty days and Fenton, Cacace, Krishna and Rufer haven’t missed a single minute of any of them. Singh, Williams and Sheridan have played some part in all five – which means going through all the travel, training and warm-ups too. Like, I’m just wondering… do they even feel fatigue or has The Man In Black coached that out of them?

Max Burgess is an interesting player. Great left foot and the confidence to run at players, he sure loves a stepover, but his first touch isn’t great and he doesn’t seem to rate his right peg too much. Can’t help but feel he needs a year or two to start reaching his potential at this level. He’s obviously making strides though because he’s getting more and more involved in things, edging Nathan Burns all the way out of yet another matchday squad. Tough times for Burnsy… wonder what he’s like taking penalties.

Look, a draw is fine. Not the commanding win it could have been but the Nix could just have easily have lost it. They’re good but they’re not great, you know. Another game where they didn’t put the ball in the net when they were at their most dominant, failing to be ruthless enough early in games. They also continue to look shaky when defending set pieces. Didn’t concede anything that way this time but they should have - there was that one time when Vargas got wide open for a header from a corner and put it wide. Nobody marking him at all… can’t blame that on Tom Doyle. And I still feel that, while he’s not afraid to go to the bench when things are going crap, Mark Rudan waits too long to make his substitutions in games like these when a shot of energy off the bench could really change the momentum.

But a draw keeps that eight-point gap in place. And as long as the Phoenix keep battling for points away from home and winning the ones in front of their own crowds then they can still make a real push for the top four. That’s the aim. This result did a little bit of damage to those hopes, especially if there’s a winner in the Melbourne City vs Adelaide game on Saturday night, but it did a lot more damage to the Newcastle Jets trying to sneak back into the top six.

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