A Paul Ifill thunderbolt rescued a point for Wellington Phoenix in an exciting and at times ill-tempered 1-1 draw with Melbourne Heart at AAMI Park on Saturday.
The point for Phoenix keeps them in third with a home final now a distinct reality, while for the Heart it signals two points dropped despite remaining on track for a maiden A-League finals berth in fifth.
The Heart turned on a mouth-watering attacking display in the first half and found their reward through striker Eli Babalj, whose header in the 32nd minute was all that separated the sides.
Having being thoroughly outplayed, the travelling Phoenix showed great resolve in the second half and were treated to another brilliant cameo from their talisman Ifill, who tormented the Heart with a fierce strike from outside the box his third in two games against them.
Earlier, Wellington’s Andrew Durante was lucky to avoid a straight red for a studs-up tackle on Jonathan Germano in the dying embers of the first half, as was Manny Muscat for a raised hand on Mate Dugandzic in the fiery aftermath.
The Heart will feel they deserved the three points but once again failed to find a second goal that would have killed off the match.
It was an enthralling game between two sides that will surely threaten come finals time.
Two contrasting styles were at play. The youthful verve the Heart possessed up against one of the A-League’s more experienced sides in the Phoenix.
Melbourne started the game at a feverish pace and were unlucky not to go ahead in the opening 20 minutes.
It was Dugandzic who created the first opening having dispossessed returning left-back Tony Lochhead at the halfway line.
His feverish work rate caught the New Zealand international napping and typified the Heart’s up-tempo start of the match.
Dugandzic spearheaded another glorious move in the eighth minute, flanked by four team-mates on the break just as the Phoenix were trying to gain a foothold in the match.
He spread it wide to Fred, whose audacious back-heel pass found Germano only for him to blast over from close range.
The opening warning shots continued with the Heart continuing to pile the pressure on. Babalj was set free on the edge of the six yard box but doted too long on the ball to allow Adrian Durante to block superbly.
Germano followed up and was again blocked by Lochhead, who appeared to stop the ball with his arm, but the penalty claim was waved away.
Fred stung the palms of Mark Paston with his drive, following Matt Thompson’s layoff. The Phoenix goalkeeper was quickly down to his right to make a strong save and keep the Heart at bay.
After weathering the storm Wellington started to play but were undone from a set piece in the 32nd minute.
Dugandzic’s enticing corner from the right was begging to be knocked in and that Babalj did. The 20-year-old rose highest to sneak his header under Paston and the resistance was broke.
Five minutes before the interval, Fred took down Ifill on the edge of the area but the penalty was turned down and a free awarded to Heart instead to the protestations of Phoenix’s leading scorer.
Tempers threatened to flare moments before the break with Durante’s ill-timed tackle on Germano riling the home side.
A huge scuffle broke out and aside from a yellow for Ben Sigmund, Wellington were lucky to head into the second half with 11 men as both Durante’s lunge and Manny Muscat’s retaliation warranted further punishment.
The second half was a rather more sedate affair with Wellington seeing more of the ball as the home side retreated considerably.
Phoenix boss Ricki Herbert rolled the dice, bringing on Mirjan Pavlovic and Alexander Smith.
Pavlovic soon made an impression, fizzing in a great ball from the right soon after the hour mark but a poacher was lacking.
The Heart had a chance to shore up their goal lead with a great turn and pass from Fred freeing Heart substitute Craig Goodwin down the left.
He went looking for Babalj, who was free in the box with only one defender standing in his way, but couldn’t find the gap.
As has often been the case the Heart struggled to find the killer punch and were made to pay once more.
The Phoenix found their equaliser ten minutes from time in sensational fashion from the most reliable of sources.
Ifill made it seven goals for the campaign with a blistering strike from outside the box, following Chris Greenacre’s clever layoff, to secure a hard-earned point for the travelling Phoenix.
Melbourne Heart: 1 (Babalj 32)
Wellington Phoenix: 1 (Ifill 80)
Crowd:6759 @ AAMI Park