The Wellington Phoenix have moved clear at the top of the Isuzu UTE A-League after taking a hard-earned point from their first match of 2024.
The Phoenix have drawn 2-2 with Adelaide United at Coopers Stadium in Adelaide, with experienced forward Kosta Barbarouses scoring a goal in each half to continue his remarkable scoring run.
Barbarouses has now scored six goals in the past four matches and has jumped up to fourth equal in the golden boot race.
The draw lifts the Nix one point clear of Melbourne Victory at the top of the A-League ladder, but head coach Giancarlo Italiano is disappointed his side didn’t go on to win the match after Adelaide had a player sent off in the 83rd minute.
“I felt that was the time we could have taken advantage of the 10 men and we could have settled into a lot of our patterns that we work on,” Italiano told media post-match.
“The intent to win the game was there but we were just a little bit naïve in executing and maybe putting them to the sword.
“But we’ll learn. I feel as though the team is maturing [and] we need games like this where we can work on these things and for the long-term planning if we can fix these things then it’ll be a good season.”
And Italiano is refusing to get carried away with where the Phoenix find themselves approaching the halfway stage of the season.
“The hard thing now is managing those expectations, which I think are more of a distraction than anything else, and keeping the group grounded.
“I’m learning myself. This is my first year as an A-League coach and I feel as though these things are also new to me.
“Luckily I’ve had 14/15 years of coaching experience that kind of guides me through.”
Giancarlo Italiano made two changes to the XI which started last Friday night’s 3-1 defeat to Sydney FC, with Lukas Kelly-Heald and Mo Al-Taay replacing Sam Sutton and David Ball, who moved to the bench.
The Phoenix had the better of the early running, but it was Adelaide who had the first shots on goal. Young forward Nestory Irankunda sprayed a shot well wide of the right post in the fifth minute before Alex Paulsenheld firmly to a powerful shot from veteran Reds midfielder Isaías moments later.
Wellington had the ball in the back of the net in the 12th minute when Bozhidar Kraev finished a free-flowing attack with a first-time finish at the near post, but after intervention from the video assistant referee the goal was disallowed for offside.
The Nix officially took the lead three minutes later when Kosta Barbarouses scored his fifth goal in four games, tapping home from a few yards out after Kelly-Heald nodded Alex Rufer’s diagonal ball back across goal.
The Reds had more possession after going behind, but were unable to test Paulsen from open play.
They looked most dangerous from set pieces and towering Japanese striker Hiroshi Ibusuki equalised in the 26th minute when he headed home a right-wing corner from Zach Clough.
Both sides had half chances to grab the halftime lead.
Kraev found some space in the Reds’ box in the 36th minute after cutting in on his left foot but shot straight at Adelaide ‘keeper James Delianov before Scott Wootton produced a great last ditch tackle to deny Ibusuki scoring his second from six yards out, this time with his feet.
The Phoenix reclaimed the lead just seconds into the second half when Barbarouses slotted home from near the penalty spot after the Reds were unable to deal with Tim Payne’s cross from the right edge of the box.
Ibusuki drew Adelaide level for a second time less than 10 minutes later when he swept home an Irankunda cut-back after the teenager burst forward down the right flank.
Italiano went to his bench for the first time shortly after the Reds’ equaliser with Sutton replacing Kelly-Heald, with Ball coming on in place of Al-Taay shortly after.
Both sides came within inches of breaking the stalemate in the final half an hour.
Adelaide substitute Ben Halloran smashed the crossbar in the 61st minute and Ibusuki rattled the near post 20 minutes later. Wellington midfielder Nicholas Pennington also struck the woodwork in time added on when he threw himself at an Oskar van Hattum cross and saw his header strike the far post.
Paulsen was the busier of the two ‘keepers. He made a great reflex save to deny Halloran in the 69th minute before getting down low to his right to keep out a powerful long-range shot from Isaías inside the final 10 minutes of normal time.
Otherwise Delianov was only called upon to make a regulation save to deny Barbarouses his hat-trick a little over an hour into the match when the veteran forward made a mazy run but wasn’t able to get any power in his left-footed shot.
The Reds spent the final seven minutes of the 90 and stoppage time with just 10 men after substitute centre back Ben Warland was show a straight red for bundling over van Hattum.
Adelaide looked the more threatening team after the sending off with the Phoenix only having a couple of chances in time added on.
Pennington struck the post in the second minute of stoppage time, while Sutton blazed a volley narrowly wide of the post with the final kick of the game six minutes later.
But ultimately the Nix had to settle for their third draw of the season to move a point clear at the top of the ladder.
The Wellington Phoenix will have extra time to prepare for their next game with their Unite Round match against Perth Glory in Sydney not until Sunday week.
Wellington Phoenix: 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 8. Ben OLD, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV (24. Oskar VAN HATTUM 82nd), 12. Mohamed AL-TAAY (10. David BALL 62nd), 14. Alex RUFER (c), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD (19. Sam SUTTON 56th).
Unused substitutes: 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 23. Luke SUPYK, 26. Isaac HUGHES, 43. Matt SHERIDAN.
Adelaide United: 1. James DELIANOV (gk), 4. Nick ANSELL (3. Ben WARLAND 46th), 7. Ryan KITTO (c), 8. ISAÍAS, 9. Hiroshi IBUSUKI (23. Luke DUZEL 90+6), 10. Zach CLOUGH (21. Javi LOPEZ 85th), 17. Luka JOVANOVIC (26. Ben HALLORAN 46th), 22. Ryan TUNNICLIFFE, 41. Alexandar POPOVIC, 43. Giuseppe BOVALINA, 66. Nestory IRANKUNDA (55. Ethan ALAGICH 90+3).
Unused substitutes: 50. Steven HALL (gk), 31. BERNARDO.
7. Kosta BARBAROUSES (Wellington Phoenix) – 15th & 46th
9. Hiroshi IBUSUKI (Adelaide United) – 26th & 55th
66. Nestory IRANKUNDA (Adelaide United) – yellow – 37th
22. Ryan TUNNICLIFFE (Adelaide United) – yellow – 41st
41. Alexandar POPOVIC (Adelaide United) – yellow – 43rd
40. Alex PAULSEN (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 77th
3. Ben WARLAND (Adelaide United) – red – 83rd
24. Oskar VAN HATTUM (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 90+2
9. Hiroshi IBUSUKI (Adelaide United) – yellow – 90+4