The Wellington Phoenix have been forced to settle for a share of the spoils in their first match back in the Isuzu UTE A-League.
The Phoenix have drawn 1-1 with high-flying Western Sydney Wanderers at WIN Stadium in Wollongong, after the Wanderers scored a late equaliser.
It was the men’s first game since their painful 3-2 defeat to Western United last month as the A-League paused for three weeks for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
Bulgarian international Bozhidar Kraev nodded the Nix in front an hour into the match after a scoreless first-half which Wellington dominated.
But Western Sydney finished the stronger of the two sides and Congolese striker Yeni Ngbakoto drew Wanderers level from a free-kick in the 79th minute.
It is the Phoenix’s fourth draw from seven matches and moves the men up to sixth on the ladder, at least temporarily.
Phoenix head coach Ufuk Talay had mixed feelings after the match.
“Disappointed in the way that we conceded,” Talay told media post-game. “To be honest it was a great delivery that evaded everybody, even Oli, and it ended up in the back of the net. But overall, I thought we played some good football.”
That was despite a substandard WIN Stadium pitch which had been damaged by a concert less than 24 hours earlier.
“We’re a ball playing team and I think the pitch became a bit of a leveller as well,” Talay said.
“The players at times, especially in the second-half, resorted to being a little bit more direct than what we wanted to be, but for 65-70 minutes we played some good football and scored a great goal.”
Kraev’s header from a pinpoint Clayton Lewis cross is his fourth goal in five games.
“BK’s had a good start to the season. He’s scoring goals, he does the hard work as well without the ball and he really understands the role that we expect of him in the position that he plays.
“I’m hoping he continues in the same way.”
Ufuk Talay made four changes to the XI which started the team’s defeat to Western United last month, with David Ball, Yan Sasse, Lucas Mauragis and Tim Payne replacing Kosta Barbarouses, Ben Old, Sam Sutton and Josh Laws, who all started the match from the bench.
The Phoenix made a bright start with Clayton Lewis dragging a shot narrowly wide of Western Sydney’s goal in the fifth minute after Mauragis and Kraev forced Wanderers ‘keeper Lawrence Thomas to make a couple of sharp saves at his near post in quick succession.
Thomas was the busier of the two goalkeepers in the first half and made an incredible reflex save to deny Scott Wootton from just a couple of yards out in the 15th minute.
Thomas also parried away a powerful shot from Oskar Zawada shortly before halftime.
Oli Sail’s saves were more comfortable, with Bosnian striker Sulejman Krpic extending the Phoenix captain the most with a header midway through the first half.
The Nix finished the half with eight shots to Western Sydney’s four, with a 3-2 advantage in shots on target.
Kraev sprayed a shot wide of goal shortly after halftime after finding space in the box, but made no mistake of his opportunity in the 61st minute.
Lewis picked out the Bulgarian playmaker at the back post and he nodded into the corner of Wanderers’ goal, out of Thomas’ reach.
Western Sydney skipper Marcelo came close with a header of his own half a dozen minutes later and the towering Brazilian was the target of Ngbakoto’s in-swinging free-kick in the 79th minute.
The delivery narrowly evaded Marcelo and everyone else on the pitch and bounced into the corner of the Wellington goal.
Sail made a couple of regulation saves in the closing stages and Payne produced a great block to deny Calem Nieuwenhof a shot on goal and ensure the Phoenix held on for a point.
The Wellington Phoenix men return home tomorrow to prepare for their first double-header with the Phoenix women against Adelaide United at Sky Stadium next Saturday.
Wellington Phoenix: 20. Oli SAIL (gk) (c), 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. Steven UGARKOVIC, 6. Tim PAYNE, 9. Oskar ZAWADA (18. Ben WAINE 82nd), 10. David BALL (8. Ben OLD 82nd), 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Lucas MAURAGIS, 17. Callan ELLIOT, 23. Clayton LEWIS (13. Nicholas PENNINGTON 74th), 31. Yan SASSE (7. Kosta BARBAROUSES 58th).
Unused substitutes: 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 19. Sam SUTTON, 21. Joshua LAWS.
Western Sydney Wanderers: 20. Lawrence THOMAS (gk), 2. Gabriel CLEUR, 3. Adama TRAORE, 5. Tomislav MRCELA, 6. Marcelo GUEDES (c), 7. Ramy NAJJARINE (10. Milos NINKOVIC 62nd (19. Daniel WILMERING 81st)), 11. Sulejman KRPIC, 17. Romain AMALFITANO (8. Oliver BOZANIC 62nd), 23. Yeni NGBAKOTO (32. Nathanael BLAIR 90+4), 26. Brandon BORRELLO, 28. Calem NIEUWENHOF.
Unused substitutes: 1. Daniel MARGUSH (gk), 12. Ruon TONGYIK, 36. Alessandro LOPANE.
11. Bozhidar KRAEV (Wellington Phoenix) – 61st
23. Yeni NGBAKOTO (Western Sydney Wanderers) – 79th
23. Yeni NGBAKOTO (Western Sydney Wanderers) – yellow – 45+1
10. David BALL (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 78th
11. Bozhidar KRAEV (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 85th
5. Steven UGARKOVIC (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 90+6