The Wellington Phoenix have continued their history-making run in the FFA Cup, against all odds.
An under-strength Phoenix side have stunned reigning A-League champions Melbourne City 4-3 on penalties at Kingston Heath in Melbourne, after their quarter-final finished scoreless after 90 minutes and extra time.
Young goalkeeper Alex Paulsen was the hero in the shoot-out. In just his second start for the Phoenix, the 19-year-old saved three of City’s seven spot kicks before midfielder Nicholas Pennington clinically converted Wellington’s seventh penalty to send the Nix into the semi-finals for the first time.
Paulsen stepped up in the absence of injured vice-captain Oli Sail, who was one of seven squad members head coach Ufuk Talay was unable to call on.
Two players have been in isolation in Sydney after testing positive to COVID-19 last week, while three others returned inconsistent rapid antigen tests in the 24 hours before the game and Oskar van Hattum didn’t make the trip to Melbourne because of a tight hamstring.
Talay made two changes to the XI which started against Adelaide United on New Year’s Day. Pennington and Sam Sutton were promoted from the bench in place of Tim Payne and James McGarry, with captain Alex Rufer filling in at centre back in Payne’s absence.
The Phoenix settled the quicker of the two sides and made it difficult for Melbourne City to play out of their own half.
They flashed a header across goal from a corner, Jaushua Sotirio had a shot deflect straight into the ‘keeper’s arms and Clayton Lewis blasted a long-range effort just wide of goal in the first 15 minutes.
Despite Wellington looking the more likely of the two sides it was the hosts who had the first clear-cut opportunity.
Marco Tilio earned City a penalty in the 25th minute after he was judged to have been fouled in the box by Callan Elliot. But captain Scott Jamieson was unable to convert from the spot, shooting over Paulsen’s goal.
The impressive Lewis created an opening back down the other end of Kingston Heath shortly after, but his cross was just out of reach of Ben Waine’s head.
City had their only first-half shot on target 10 minutes from halftime, when Andrew Nabbout shot straight at Paulsen after a strong run into the Phoenix area.
Sotirio headed the ball in the back of the net in the 42nd minute, but it was disallowed after David Ball was deemed to have been offside before heading Pennington’s free-kick back across goal.
Wellington continued to create opportunities in the second-half, with Melbourne City denying them with some desperate last ditch defending.
Ball had a shot well-blocked in the 52nd minute and Waine had a great chance snuffed out by City’s Portuguese defender Nuno Reis later in the half. Waine was dangerous throughout. The young forward also steered a header just wide of goal.
Alex Paulsen was assured when he was called upon at the other end of the pitch. His biggest moment before the shoot-out came in the 75th minute when he quickly came off his line and took advantage of a heavy touch from Jordan Bos to beat the City winger to the ball.
The Phoenix’s best chance of the 90 minutes fell to substitute Louis Fenton late in the second-half. Sotirio delivered a great cross to the back post but Fenton was unable to redirect it on target.
The opportunities dried up for Wellington in extra time, with Melbourne City finishing the stronger of the two sides.
But the Phoenix were well organised and defended resolutely, meaning Paulsen wasn’t called upon to make any saves of note.
He rose to the occasion as the shoot-out began. Paulsen saved City’s first and third penalties, denying both Rostyn Griffiths and Scott Galloway from the spot.
But his opposite Thomas Glover was also at the top of his game. Glover saved penalties from Fenton and Rufer and Melbourne City led 2-1 after four rounds.
It gave Jamieson the chance to send City into the semi-finals. But he missed the target from the spot for the second time in the match to give Wellington a lifeline.
Sotirio calmly drew the Phoenix level at 2-2 after five rounds with a well-taken penalty and it remained all square after the first round of sudden-death.
Paulsen then stepped up to save Tilio’s spot-kick before Pennington found the top corner of Glover’s net to send Wellington into the final four.
The Wellington Phoenix will learn their semi-final opponent on Thursday at midday AEDT (2pm NZT), when the draw takes place.
The Phoenix will now return their attentions back to the Isuzu UTE A-League, with their next match against the Newcastle Jets in Sydney on Saturday evening.
Wellington Phoenix: 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 8. Ben OLD (5. James MCGARRY 84th), 9. David BALL (32. George OTT 104th), 11. Jaushua SOTIRIO, 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 17. Callan ELLIOT, 18. Ben WAINE, 19. Sam SUTTON (16. Louis FENTON 86th), 21. Joshua LAWS, 23. Clayton LEWIS
Unused substitutes: 30. Henry GRAY (gk), 31. Kurtis MOGG, 34. Jackson MANUEL
Melbourne City: 1. Thomas GLOVER (gk), 2 Scott GALLOWAY, 3. Scott JAMIESON (c), 4. Nuno REIS, 5. Rostyn GRIFFIFTHS, 10. Florin BERENGUER (18. Connor METCALFE 62nd), 15. Andrew NABBOUT (7. Matthew LECKIE 62nd), 20. Manuel PUCCIARELLI (8. Aiden O’NEILL 69th), 23. Marco TILIO, 36. Kerrin STOKES (39. Anthony LESIOTIS 69th), 38. Jordan BOS (17. Stefan COLAKOVSKI 86th)
Unused substitutes: 33. Matthew SUTTON (gk), 16. Taras GOMULKA
5. Rostyn GRIFFIFTHS (Melbourne City) X
18. Ben WAINE (Wellington Phoenix) 0-1
8. Aiden O’NEILL (Melbourne City)
21. Joshua LAWS (Wellington Phoenix) X 1-1
2 Scott GALLOWAY (Melbourne City) X
16. Louis FENTON (Wellington Phoenix) X 1-1
18. Connor METCALFE (Melbourne City)
14. Alex RUFER (Wellington Phoenix) X 2-1
3. Scott JAMIESON (Melbourne City) X
11. Jaushua SOTIRIO (Wellington Phoenix) 2-2
17. Stefan COLAKOVSKI (Melbourne City)
23. Clayton LEWIS (Wellington Phoenix) 3-3
23. Marco TILIO (Melbourne City) X
13. Nicholas Pennington (Wellington Phoenix) 3-4
9. David BALL (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 35th
23. Marco TILIO (Melbourne Victory) – yellow – 70th
13. Nicholas PENNINGTON (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 118th