The End of the Welly Nix Season, Part 1: Defeat In Melbourne

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Every season ends in tragedy, one way or another. The devastating sudden tragedy of a late goal, the resigned tragedy of a prolonged inevitability, the cosmic tragedy of the coin toss that is the penalty shootout… or even the subtle tragedy of triumph where a wonderful journey comes to an end and is locked away forever in the past tense. All finalities require a moment of grief before the renewed hope for the future can take hold.

The Wellington Phoenix started brilliantly against the Melbourne Victory in their elimination playoff. Right from the start they looked sharp and energised, as Roy Krishna found and pocket of space and lashed one goalwards off his left foot for Lawrence Thomas to save. If there was anyone actually worried that the mental forfeit in Perth last week would be lingering in the brains of Mark Rudan’s team then those fears were swiftly demolished by a Welly Nix side that looked as fired up as they had all season. You’d expect nothing less from a Mark Rudan coached team that had been hearing themselves written off all week.

But for all that early dominance, and the Victory didn’t even have a shot in the first twenty minutes, there wasn’t anything that the Vix defence couldn’t handle, unfortunately. Kevin Muscat, the Goblin King, set his side up with a deep back four and as we’ve seen so often this season the Nix don’t really know how to break down that kind of thing. In previous games against this side they’d done quite well getting around the outside of that defence and Libby Cacace did his best… but the ball got stuck on the other side most of the time and sorry to say that Ryan Lowry simply isn’t an attacking threat under any circumstances in the A-League.

I mean, maybe if he’d actually tried to swing the ball in a few times but instead he was hesitant and conservative in that attacking third, he cut back to a midfielder or defender basically every time. The quantity of backwards passes from that dude, seriously. Not his fault though – this is a central defender playing at right back and his inclusion was the one shocker when the starting team was announced. Based on the last two weeks, it was a waste to have David William there. He does a job but he doesn’t have the defensive instinct to handle a team like this and dragging him out of the penalty area negates his best attribute: his goal scoring ability.

So sure, there was always likely to be a change there. My preference was Max Burgess (though perhaps swapping him and Cacace) in order to unleash that deep passing threat of his as a crosser as well… but Rudan, as you sorta figured he might, preferred the most defensively sound option and that meant Lowry despite the sacrifice that meant going forwards. It’s a playoff game, right? You keep it close and make sure you don’t get beaten, then see how it goes. That’s the underdog model and the Nix were underdogs, fair enough.

For real. Like, you cannot argue with the logic – the actual problem was that the Nix’s best right fullback was out injured and they didn’t have a trusted option to replace him. The guy they signed as his backup, Justin Gulley, has been injured too. The Nix had a slim squad this season and it was made even slimmer as folks like Mitch Nichols, Reuben Way, and Nathan Burns fell by the wayside. They never had the depth to absorb these kinds of blows. But jeez, who the hell thought Louis Fenton was gonna prove so irreplaceable at the start of the season?!

As much as I would have preferred that Rudan take a risk with Burgess or Callan Elliot at right back, I completely understand why he chose Lowry and my only issue is one that I’ll come back to later regarding subs. Other than Lowry it was exactly as expected, apart from Sarpreet Singh dropping to the bench to accommodate Willo moving back to his spiritual home of striker. Filip Kurto in goal. Steven Taylor, Andrew Durante, and Michal Kopczynski at the back. Liberati Cacace making his 26th start of the season (only school exams getting in the way of the other two starts). Ryan Lowry at right back for the third time this season – coincidentally we lost all three of those games 3-1. Huh. Mandi and Alex Rufer in the middle. Max Burgess as the attacking mid. David Williams and Roy Krishna up top.

There wasn’t a singular moment when the Victory began to ease into the game. Keisuke Honda’s shot from range, their first attempt, was maybe a hint of what was to follow but it was a gradual thing. The more the Victory withstood the Nix’s early jabs, the more comfortable they looked. True to expectations it was a physical game and old mate Kosta Barbarouses was in the wars a few times against his former club, but the class of Ola Toivonen and Keisuke Honda soon became a bit much to handle. The Nix were five mins from hanging on ‘til half-time. That would have been a big boost. The longer this thing remained scoreless, the better their chances. Although on that same note they were pretty bloody unlikely to hold on forever, considering they haven’t kept a clean sheet since January, so if they could score first then that’d be enormous.

Nah but they weren’t able to make those opening stages count for anything and then, what do you know, they conceded from a set piece. Just as they’ve done so many, many times this season. This was an ugly one too, as Honda curled one in from deep and Durante simply lost his bloke. The cross was stunning from Honda. The header was super underrated from Georg Niedermeier as he pretty much directed that thing into the top corner despite facing the wrong way. But yeah, on the list of things that the Nix needed to do to win this game… not scoring while they were on top and then conceding first just before the break was not one of them.

Then Kosta Barbarouses and Ola Toivonen combined following a giveaway in the midfield from Mandi and with 53 minutes gone the Victory led 2-0. Toivonen had been trying to set Kosta up all day, even declining his own potential glory once or twice for no apparent reason other than selflessness. So lucky for him that Kosta finally put one away. The move came swiftly after Mandi lost the ball but it was symptomatic of the way the game was going long before that. The Victory could sit deep enough to nullify the Nix’s attack (other than a few speedy moments from Roy Krishna, who was a constant threat and probably the Nix’s only threat, tbh) and then boom on the break, the slow and exposed Nix defence had no answer.

At 2-0 down away from home even with more than half an hour to go, you’re well within your rights to start panicking. Rudan did what he had to do in taking Mandi off so that Sarpreet Singh could get out there and Singh responded by bringing the touch of incisive class that they needed. His ball to Roy Krishna for the goal was magical. Krishna’s speed and anticipation to get there ahead of the defender, then the guile to guide it into the net was masterful. To be honest it was extremely similar to the goal that Louis Suarez scored for Barcelona against Liverpool the other day. Just a pity the Nix didn’t have a couple Lionel Messi strikes to go with it.

Honestly, at that point I think the Nix coasted a bit too much. They got one and that should have given them the desperation to go all out for that second. But it would be another thirteen minutes before Cillian Sheridan was brought on off the bench. Man, the first thing he shoulda done is brought Callan Elliot on too. Melbourne were doing most of their best work down the left of defence anyway, we could handle the risk of a more naïve defender for the attacking tradeoff that Elliot would offer. That was my guess from the start – leave Lowry on until we need a goal and then don’t hesitate for a second to throw Elliot out there. But that sub wasn’t made until the last minute of the ninety.

Mark Rudan has been ruthless with subs when it’s been obvious that something had to change. He wouldn’t be afraid to haul a bugger off in the first half if he had to. But in those moments where the team is doing okay but could use a spark off the bench he’s always been reluctant to change things. Cillian Sheridan’s been remarkably underused at times. Often that’s because we don’t have a lot to work with amongst the subs but still. Rudan had absolutely nothing to lose in this game and I think he could have been more proactive.

Then Ola Toivonen got the third and the last twenty minutes really weren’t up to much after that. The chance came about from another situation where the Nix were caught on the break and when Kopa wasn’t able to cut out the ball in behind then it was all over. It looked like the deflection had guided the Swede wide enough for Kurto to do something but then that finish was so sweet it’ll give you diabetes. Holy mother of goals that was a beaut. Sumptuous, I believe is the word commentators prefer in those situations.

And that was that. Kopczynski picked up a second yellow late on as the game got a little silly. There were yellows handed out to a staff member on each side, while six different Nix players saw bookings (Kopa getting two of them). Instead of pressing for a consolation goal at the end we just got stroppy instead. But it didn’t matter.

It wasn’t just the Nix’s depth that got to them in the end, it was their top end as well. For the Nix, there was Roy Krishna looking great and at this point if they aren’t able to re-sign him then I don’t know what the footy club equivalent of treason would be but that’s what it would look like. But the Victory had more class, more individuals capable of busting open a game, they were better to put it as simple as can be.

The Nix had plenty of others who put down solid performances. Guys like Taylor, Rufer, Cacace, and Kurto. However a few individual mistakes led to goals and we may be talking some seriously fine margins here but the Phoenix had to be damn near at their best to win and they weren’t so they didn’t and that’s it for the campaign. Mark Rudan’s gone. Several of these players will be too. After all the hype and promise we finished sixth out of ten and lost in the first week of the playoffs. Valiant but ultimately outclassed. So it goes.

There’ll be way more words on the state of the club as the days go by. Part two will be about the swift managerial appointment that they’ve already made. Part three will be a look back at the season that was. The past, present, and future. More where that all came from too if time permits.

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