The Wellington Phoenix have celebrated their return home with a pivotal three points in the race for the Isuzu UTE A-League finals.
The Phoenix have held on to beat the Newcastle Jets 2-1 in their first match at Sky Stadium in six weeks.
Callan Elliot’s maiden A-League goal and Oskar Zawada’s 11th of the season gave the Nix a 2-0 halftime lead.
The Jets pulled a goal back early in the second half and the visitors threatened more regularly after halftime. However, Wellington defended resolutely to hold on for the win.
The Phoenix remain fifth on the ladder, but are now level on points with the Central Coast Mariners and Western Sydney Wanderers and are four points clear of seventh-placed Newcastle.
Head coach Ufuk Talay was relieved his side closed out the game.
“We played at home and it was very important that we picked up three points,” Talay told media post-game.
“This part of the season and where we’re at it’s very important we pick up the points and that’s what we did.”
Talay reverted to a back five for the final half an hour to defend the one goal lead.
“We didn’t want to shut up shop, but in transition moments we were getting caught out at times.
“I didn’t want to shut shop that early, but I think we needed it. We needed an extra player in that last line to stop those moments.
“At the end of the day I can say it worked because we won the game.”
With the Nix further consolidating their place in the top six, Talay now wants his side to push for a top four position and home playoff.
“We’re a good squad, I think we’re a top four squad and we can try to push for the top two.
“We need to get the results for that to happen, but we’re pushing as high as we can go and we’d love to have a home final.
“Even in my first season when we finished third we didn’t get the opportunity to play a final here so I think it would be fantastic to get that opportunity this season.”
Ufuk Talay made two changes to the XI which started last week’s draw with Central Coast, with fullbacks Lucas Mauragis and Elliot returning in place of the injured Sam Sutton and Josh Laws. Tim Payne shifted in to centre back to partner Scott Wootton. Kosta Barbarouses returned via the bench after three weeks out with a hamstring injury.
It was a sedate opening half an hour, with little goalmouth action.
It took more than 15 minutes for the Phoenix to register the first shot of the match, with Bozhidar Kraev bending a shot narrowly wide of Jack Duncan’s left-hand post after some good interplay from Zawada and David Ball.
Nix ‘keeper Oli Sail was called into action a couple of minutes later, making a sharp reflex save with his legs to deny Trent Buhagiar after the Jets broke into the Wellington box for the first time.
Kraev got into the Newcastle penalty area on the half hour mark but his shot was well-blocked and the Jets quickly broke down field and Elliot did enough to make Buhagiar rush his shot.
The game burst to life late in the first half.
Yan Sasse rattled Duncan’s left-hand post in the 37th minute after Ball and Zawada broke from halfway and unfortunately for the Phoenix Kraev couldn’t properly connect with the rebound.
The Bulgarian delivered a great low cross a couple of minutes later, but Zawada wasn’t at the back post to meet it.
The Nix eventually took the lead in the 41st minute when Duncan spilled a Sasse free-kick and Elliot smashed in the rebound from inside the six yard box.
Wellington had their second 10 minutes later, in the sixth minute of time added on, when Zawada converted from the penalty spot after Jets midfielder Angus Thurgate was deemed to have committed a handball in the box, following intervention from the video assistant referee.
Japanese midfielder Manabu Saito brought Newcastle back into the contest just six minutes into the second half. He finished well at the back post after a good low cross from Buhagiar.
It was a reward for Newcastle, who had looked the more dangerous side since halftime.
Talay reacted by making his first substitution, bringing on Barbarouses in place of Ball. He soon changed formation too, with Josh Laws replacing Sasse and joining Scott Wootton and Tim Payne as the third centre back.
The Phoenix’s second substitution came after Sail had been called on to make a strong save to deny Jets midfielder Kostandinos Grozos.
Duncan didn’t make his first save of the second half until the 69th minute when Barbarouses took a quick shot in the box.
Moments later Sail kept the Phoenix in front, tipping a Grozos free-kick over his bar.
Barbarouses thought he had restored the Nix’s two goal lead in the 74th minute when he beat Duncan, but he was flagged for offside.
Newcastle came close three minutes later when a free-kick deflected off Jason Hoffman and went narrowly wide of Oli Sai’s right-hand post.
Alex Rufer came closest to scoring Wellington’s third in the 83rd minute, firing a shot over the Jets’ goal from the top of the box.
Newcastle substitutes Beka Dartsmelia and Thomas Aquilina were off target late in the match, while Sail saved a shot from Carl Jenkinson in stoppage time.
But otherwise the Phoenix goal was untroubled until the final whistle was blown after more than seven minutes of time added on.
The Wellington Phoenix will now head to Auckland next weekend to play host to fellow finals hopefuls Sydney FC at Eden Park.
Wellington Phoenix: 20. Oli SAIL (gk), 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. Steven UGARKOVIC, 6. Tim PAYNE, 9. Oskar ZAWADA (24. Oskar VAN HATTUM 90+6), 10. David BALL (7. Kosta BARBAROUSES 54th), 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Lucas MAURAGIS, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 17. Callan ELLIOT (15. Nikko BOXALL 90+6), 31. Yan SASSE (21. Joshua LAWS 63rd).
Unused substitutes: 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 8. Ben OLD, 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON.
Newcastle Jets: 1. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 2. Dane INGHAM (39. Thomas AQUILINA 83rd), 3. Jason HOFFMAN, 4. Manabu SAITO (18. Daniel STYNES 80th), 5. Matthew JURMAN (c), 6. Brandon O’NEILL (8. Beka DARTSMELIA 77th), 7. Trent BUHAGIAR, 11. Jaushua SOTIRIO, 17. Kostandinos GROZOS, 25. Carl JENKINSON, 32. Angus THURGATE.
Unused substitutes: 20. Michael WEIER (gk), 14. Mohamed AL-TAAY, 22. Phillip CANCAR, 33. Mark NATTA.
17. Callan ELLIOT (Wellington Phoenix) – 41st
9. Oskar ZAWADA (Wellington Phoenix) – 45+6 pen
4. Manabu SAITO (Newcastle Jets) – 51st
7. Trent BUHAGIAR (Newcastle Jets) – yellow – 35th
10. David BALL (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 38th
1. Jack DUNCAN (Newcastle Jets) – yellow – 41st
25. Carl JENKINSON (Newcastle Jets) – yellow – 85th