Isuzu UTE A-League Round 22 Match Review

The Wellington Phoenix have taken another major step towards claiming their maiden A-League title.

The Phoenix have beaten Brisbane Roar 1-0 at Sky Stadium in Wellington to move six points clear at the top of the ladder with four rounds remaining in the premiership race.

Bozhidar Kraev’s goal just 76 seconds into the match proved to be the difference between the two sides with the Nix holding on for the final nine minutes plus time added on after their captain Alex Rufer was controversially sent off.

The result takes Wellington’s points tally to 46, equal with their best-ever return from the 2014-15 season.

“I’m ecstatic because the international break is very skewed,” Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano told media post-match. “I don’t like it.

“The fact that you don’t have a game and the fact that we had such a long chunk of our squad away, and they were coming from the other side of the world [meant] I had essentially one day to prep.

“I had to make some big calls on players, not starting them, because I didn’t want to have a dynamic where I had five, six players that were gassed all playing at once.

“I’m delighted that we got the three points, like any other game.

“One thing I can safely say is that was our target for the season, to get 46 points. After the Newcastle game some of the boys spoke about that. I’m happy, so now every other point we get is a bonus.”

Italiano felt Rufer’s sending off for standing on Roar midfielder Henry Hore was “a bit harsh”, with the Wellington’s captain red carded following intervention from the video assistant referee.

“I don’t want to speak too early, but I don’t understand how else he’s supposed to go for the ball.

“He’s won the ball the first time, he’s won the ball the second time and on the third attempt the player’s on the ground and he’s just going for the ball.

“I just don’t understand how the referee or VAR can establish intent in that split second. If there was a longer period where the player had to think about it I understand, but not in those moments.”

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – MARCH 31: Mohamed Al-Taay and Kosta Barbarouses of the Phoenix take the field to warm up during the A-League Men round 22 match between Wellington Phoenix and Brisbane Roar at Sky Stadium, on March 31, 2024, in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Giancarlo Italiano made three changes to the XI which started the 2-1 win over Sydney FC prior to the international break, with Youstin Salas, David Ball and Mo Al-Taay coming into the side for injured defenders Tim Payne and Isaac Hughes, and All Whites attacking midfielder Ben Old, who was named amongst the substitutes.

The Phoenix took the lead after 26 uninterrupted passes from kick-off, with Bozhidar Kraev providing the final touch to steer Sam Sutton’s cutback past Roar goalkeeper Macklin Freke just 76 seconds into the match.

Brisbane spurned a gilt-edged opportunity to equalise just two minutes later when the Nix coughed up possession inside their half, with Nikola Mileusnic curling his shot wide.

Brisbane looked the more threatening side after going behind and Alex Paulsen had to make a few saves, the pick of which came in the 20th minute when he parried away Keegan Jelacic’s shot from the penalty spot.

Freke was next tested 11 minutes out from halftime when he punched away Kraev’s powerful effort from the top left corner of the Roar box.

Moments later Paulsen got a strong hand to deny Florin Berenguer from drawing Brisbane level.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – MARCH 31: Bozhidar Kraev of the Phoenix celebrates with Youstin Salas Gomez after scoring a goal during the A-League Men round 22 match between Wellington Phoenix and Brisbane Roar at Sky Stadium, on March 31, 2024, in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

It was the final goalmouth action of the first half, with the Nix perhaps fortunate not to be reduced to 10 men on the strike of halftime. David Ball was yellow carded for a high foot that caught Roar captain Tom Aldred, but then the video assistant referee intervened. After a long deliberation the VAR determined a yellow card was sufficient.

The Phoenix made a bright start to the second half and Kraev came close to doubling their lead in the 49th minute when he headed a Salas cross narrowly wide of the far post. Macklin Freke made a good save shortly after to deny Mo Al-Taay.

The Nix got their bodies in the way of Brisbane’s best opportunities, the best of which fell to Berenguer in the 53rd minute.

Kosta Barbarouses found the back of the net a handful of minute late after slipping in behind the Roar defence, turning Kai Trewin inside-out and then slotting past Freke. Unfortunately for Barbarouses, the assistant referee flagged for offside and the VAR, after a long look, upheld the decision.

Ben Old, who came off the bench before the hour mark, was denied by Freke in the 66th minute, with Brisbane’s ‘keeper getting a strong hard to Old’s thumping right-footed effort.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – MARCH 31: Referee Tim Danaskos shows a yellow card to Alex Rufer of the Phoenix during the A-League Men round 22 match between Wellington Phoenix and Brisbane Roar at Sky Stadium, on March 31, 2024, in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The next flashpoint came a dozen minutes later when Alex Rufer stood on a prone Henry Hore while winning possession. Rufer was initially shown a yellow card, but the VAR intervened and the referee decided to upgrade his decision to red.

The alleged foul happened just outside the box and Roar midfielder stood Jay O’Shea over the free-kick. O’Shea curled his shot up and over the wall, but Alex Paulsen was able to acrobatically push it over the bar.

Brisbane had most of the ball for the remainder of the match but were unable to break down the resolute Wellington defence and create any goalscoring opportunities.

Instead the Nix threatened on the counter, with substitute Oskar van Hattum and Youstin Salas both forcing saves from Macklin Freke in second half stoppage time. Bozhidar Kraev also fizzed a free-kick over Freke’s goal shortly before the fulltime whistle blew.

The Wellington Phoenix will quickly turn their attentions to Saturday’s potential premiership decider against second-placed Central Coast Mariners in Gosford. Central Coast will first play Melbourne City on Tuesday night in a catch-up game.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – MARCH 31: Phoenix fans show their support during the A-League Men round 22 match between Wellington Phoenix and Brisbane Roar at Sky Stadium, on March 31, 2024, in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Wellington Phoenix: 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES (18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD 83rd), 10. David BALL (24. Oskar VAN HATTUM 66th), 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Mo AL-TAAY (8. Ben OLD 57th), 14. Alex RUFER (c), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON (43 Matt SHERIDAN 57th), 17. Youstin SALAS, 19. Sam SUTTON.
Unused substitutes: 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 5. Fin CONCHIE, 23. Luke SUPYK.

Brisbane Roar: 1. Macklin FREKE (gk), 3. Corey BROWN, 5. Tom ALDRED (c), 7. Florin BERENGUER, 10. Nikola MILEUSNIC (11. Jez LOFTHOUSE 73rd), 13. Henry HORE (8. Jonas MARKOVSKI 83rd), 16. Thomas WADDINGHAM, 21. Antonee BURKE-GILROY (99. Ayom MAJOK 90+4), 23. Keegan JELACIC, 26. Jay O’SHEA, 27.  Kai TREWIN.
Unused substitutes: 29. Matthew ACTON (gk), 12. Taras GOMULKA, 19. Jack HINGERT, 35. Louis ZABALA.

11. Bozhidar KRAEV (Wellington Phoenix) – 2nd


10. David BALL (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 43rd
13. Henry HORE (Brisbane Roar) – yellow – 73rd
14. Alex RUFER (Wellington Phoenix) – red – 81st
5. Tom ALDRED (Brisbane Roar) – yellow – 90+5