Western United have brought an end to the Wellington Phoenix’s remarkable 2021/22 Isuzu UTE A-League season.
The Victorian side have beaten the Phoenix 1-0 in a thrilling elimination final at AAMI Park in Melbourne, with a 10th minute goal from Serbian striker Aleksandar Prijovic ultimately separating the two sides.
The Nix came within millimetres of scoring an equaliser, with the ever-dangerous Reno Piscopo rattling the crossbar and Western ‘keeper Jamie Young producing arguably the save of the season to deny Wellington substitute James McGarry.
“I think Jamie Young was probably the best player on the park and I think that tells you a bit of a tale of the game,” Phoenix head coach Ufuk Talay told media post-game. “I think we created enough chances to get ourselves back in the game.
“Disappointed at the end that we don’t continue but very proud of the group. [They] showed their resilience and perseverance to get to where they got to this season.
“I’m very proud of the group, very proud of the players, very proud of my staff [for] the perseverance and the resilience that the players have shown for us to even get to this point and play finals football.
“On that side of things I can’t complain. I’m just disappointed about the result.”
Talay made four changes to the XI which started Monday night’s final regular season match against Melbourne City. Piscopo, David Ball, Gael Sandoval and Clayton Lewis all returned to the starting line-up, with Lewis making his first start in seven weeks.
They were at the heart of a bright start from the Phoenix. Young was forced to make a fine save just six minutes into the match to prevent Piscopo from giving the visitors the early lead.
However, shortly after it was Western who opened the scoring. Prijovic smashed a shot past Oli Sail at the back post after the Nix were unable to clear a cross.
Gary Hooper came close to a near instant equaliser, heading a pinpoint Tim Payne cross narrowly off target.
The Phoenix dominated possession for the rest of the half but were unable to test Young again before the break.
Instead it was Sail who was the busier of the two ‘keepers and his centre backs Scott Wootton and Finn Surman both had to make timely interventions to prevent Western doubling their lead.
Sail’s first-half saves were comfortable, although he did have to stretch to palm away a curling effort from Jerry Skotadis in the 39th minute.
The second-half was end-to-end with the Phoenix pushing numbers forward in search of an equaliser and Western United threatening on the break.
Western forward Connor Pain had the first goalscoring opportunity after the break, but Surman was able to snuff out his shot from six yards out.
The young defender made a number of important interventions to keep the Nix in the game.
Piscopo, who was dangerous throughout, came within inches of drawing Wellington level in the 62nd minute. He cannoned a shot off the crossbar after finding some space on the edge of the Western area.
Dylan Wenzell Halls should have doubled the hosts’ lead moments later, but he blazed a shot wide of goal from just six yards out.
Phoenix substitute Ben Old had the next big chance in the 68th minute. Unfortunately for the Nix he wasn’t able to head an inch-perfect cross from Ball on target.
Shortly after Sail had to produce a quality save to keep out a deflected shot from Pain and prevent Western from doubling their lead.
His opposite then produced a simply ridiculous save in the 71st minute. McGarry looked to have headed home the equaliser but Young somehow got his right mitt to claw his powerful shot off the line.
The Western ‘keeper also parried away a Piscopo free-kick in the 77th minute and palmed an Old shot around the post deep in second-half stoppage time.
In between the two Young saves Surman had a chance to be Wellington’s hero, but he wasn’t able to direct Lewis’ free-kick on goal.
Jamie Young and Western United held on to secure a home and away semi-final with Melbourne Victory, while Wellington Phoenix quickly turning their attentions to next season after two years based in Australia.
“It’s nice to know we’ll be playing home and away,” Talay said. “It’ll be nice to be able to train in Wellington, sleep in our own beds and get ready for a game at home.
“It’s nice to know we’ll be back and have a bit of normality.”
The Phoenix’s squad is already starting to take shape.
“At the moment we’ve got 14-15 players signed for next season. We’ve got a few important positions we need to fill with visa spots.
“We lacked probably a goal scorer this season. We shared the goals around with a few players but we lacked a real clinical player up front and that’s something we’re looking for.”
Wellington Phoenix: 20. Oli SAIL (gk) (c), 4. Scott WOOTTON, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Gael SANDOVAL (8. Ben OLD 54th), 9. David BALL (18. Ben WAINE 69th), 10. Reno PISCOPO 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 19. Sam SUTTON (5. James MCGARRY 69th), 23. Clayton LEWIS, 33. Finn SURMAN, 88. Gary HOOPER (11. Jaushua SOTIRIO 54th)
Unused substitutes: 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 3. Matthew BOZINOVSKI, 16. Louis FENTON
Western United: 1. Jamie YOUNG (gk), 4. Leo LACROIX, 6. Tomoki IMAI, 8. Lachlan WALES, 9. Dylan WENZEL HALLS (26. Nicolas MILANOVIC 85th), 11. Connor PAIN, 16. Rene KRHIN (42. Rhys BOZINOVSKI 74th), 17. Benjamin GARUCCIO, 27. Jerry SKOTADIS (19. Joshua RISDON 69th), 88. Neil KILKENNY (c), 99. Aleksandar PRIJOVIC
Unused substitutes: 37. Ryan SCOTT (gk), 33. Benjamin COLLINS, 34. Christian THEOHAROUS, 38. Noah BOTIC
99. Aleksandar PRIJOVIC (Western United) – 10th
6. Tomoki IMAI (Western United) – yellow – 37th
23. Clayton LEWIS (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 51st
26. Nicolas MILANOVIC (Western United) – yellow – 87th
42. Rhys BOZINOVSKI (Western United) – yellow – 90+3
11. Connor PAIN (Western United) – yellow – 90+3