Alex Rufer has scored a stoppage time penalty to keep the Wellington Phoenix at the top of the Isuzu UTE A-League.
The Phoenix captain has converted from the spot in the fifth minute of time added on to secure Wellington a 1-1 draw against the Melbourne Victory in a drama-filled top of the table match at Sky Stadium.
The Nix were forced to play the entire second half with 10 men after fullback Tim Payne was sent off shortly before halftime and they defended bravely with Victory only finding a breakthrough in the 79th minute.
Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano brought on young forwards Oskar van Hattum and Luke Supyk in the closing stages to try and grab and equaliser and van Hattum earned the penalty at the start of stoppage time.
Italiano couldn’t watch as Rufer stepped up to the spot and cooly send the goalkeeper the wrong way.
“I was in the corner just watching the crowd’s reactions,” he told media post-match. “I didn’t even know Rufs took the penalty to be fair because I turned around as soon as the penalty was given.
“I’m actually really happy that he took it because it’s a big defining moment in the season.
“For me that’s what real leadership is; stepping up, irrespective of whether he scored or not. It takes a lot of bravery.”
He believed the Nix would score an equaliser, despite being a man down.
“My gut was telling me that Victory were starting to drop off and were actually a little bit fearful and I felt as though if we kept pushing we were going to get a goal.
“The moment that gave me the biggest belief was when Oskar van Hattum came into the top of the box and cut back in and I felt like ‘right, we’re in this game’ so hats off to them.”
A season-high crowd of 9,139 cheered the Phoenix on and Italiano thanked them for their support.
“I absorbed it (the crowd) at the beginning of the game.
“It felt like more than nine or 10 thousand. The place was buzzing and it actually reminded me a little bit of the Western United game when we came back from Covid and there was like 24 thousand [here].”
Giancarlo Italiano made two changes to the XI which started Sunday’s thrilling 4-3 win over Perth Glory, with Lukas Kelly-Heald and Ben Old returning to the starting line-up in place of Sam Sutton and Mo Al-Taay respectively. Van Hattum returned via the bench.
The Victory had the better of the early possession and registered the first shot at goal with left back Adama Traore finding the side netting in the fourth minute.
The Phoenix’s first chance fell to David Ball a handful of minutes later when he curled a shot wide of the right-hand post after finding a bit of space outside the box.
The first major flashpoint of the match came midway through the first half when Bozhidar Kraev appeared to be brought down in the box in the act of shooting. The Bulgarian still managed to force Melbourne ‘keeper Paul Izzo to make a save as he was falling but his penalty claims were waved away and Payne blasted the rebound well off target. The video assistant referee saw no need to intervene on this occasion.
The Victory wasted a gilt-edged opportunity to open the scoring in the 39th minute with Nishan Velupillay missing a tap in at the back post after Daniel Arzani caused the Nix problems down the right flank.
The visitors had the ball in the back of the net moments later when Chris Ikonomidis flicked a Velupillay shot past Alex Paulsen in the Wellington goal. This time the VAR intervened and ruled the goal out for offside.
The VAR got involved deep into stoppage time too when Payne committed a foul on Zinedine Machach. Referee Daniel Elder initially awarded the Phoenix fullback a yellow card, but Elder upgraded it to a red after being urged to check the replay screen.
Nicholas Pennington shifted to right back in Tim Payne’s absence and unsurprisingly the Victory dominated possession early in the second half.
However the visitors were mostly limited to shots from outside the box and Paulsen was rarely troubled, comfortably saving long-range efforts from Roderick Miranda and Jake Brimmer before denying Zinedine Machach at his near post after the Frenchman burst into the Phoenix box.
The Victory got a bit luck for their eventual breakthrough with an off-target shot from Velupillay taking a massive deflection off substitute Connor Chapman and finding its way into the back of the net.
Italiano responded to the setback by making a double change, bringing on Al-Taay and van Hattum in place of Pennington and Kelly-Heald and throwing numbers forward in search of an equaliser.
Scott Wootton had a volley blocked in the visitors’ box and headed a right-wing corner wide of the far post as Wellington started to threaten the Victory goal.
Van Hattum then flashed a left-footed shot narrowly wide of the same post in the 90th minute when he cut into the box from the right wing and moments later he was brought down in the box by Jason Geria.
Referee Elder initially waved play on but a minute later was asked by his VAR to look at the replay. It didn’t take him long to award the penalty.
Rufer stepped up to the spot after a brief chat with the in-form Kosta Barbarouses and slotted it into the right corner in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
The Phoenix saw out the remaining minutes to secure a valuable point and ensure they will remain atop the A-League ladder for another week.
The Wellington Phoenix will be back in action on Saturday week when they will visit Newcastle Jets in their first of five matches in just 21 days.
Wellington Phoenix: 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 8. Ben OLD, 10. David BALL (19. Sam SUTTON 68th), 11. Bozhidar KRAEV (23. Luke SUPYK 89th), 14. Alex RUFER (c), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON (12. Mohamed AL-TAAY 83rd), 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD (24. Oskar VAN HATTUM 83rd).
Unused substitutes: 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 5. Fin CONCHIE, 51. Gabriel SLOANE-RODRIGUES.
Melbourne Victory: 1. Paul IZZO (gk), 2. Jason GERIA, 3. Adama TRAORE (11. Ben FOLAMI 63rd), 4. Raimon MARCHAN (25. Ryan TEAGUE 63rd), 5. Damien DA SILVA, 7. Chris IKONOMIDIS (14. Connor CHAPMAN 63rd), 8. Zinedine MACHACH, 17. Nishan VELUPLILLAY, 19. Daniel ARZANI (24. Eli ADAMS 82nd), 21. Roderick MIRANDA (c), 22. Jake BRIMMER (27. Jordi VALADON 74th).
Unused substitutes: 40. Christian SICILIANO (gk), 28. Franco LINO.
14. Connor CHAPMAN (Melbourne Victory) – 79th
14. Alex RUFER (Wellington Phoenix) – 90+5 pen
3. Adama TRAORE (Melbourne Victory) – yellow – 35th
6. Tim PAYNE (Wellington Phoenix) – red – 45+7