The Wellington Phoenix have secured a place in the Isuzu UTE A-League finals for the fourth time in five years.
The Phoenix have beaten Macarthur FC 1-0 at Campbelltown Stadium in Sydney, courtesy of Oskar Zawada’s 15th goal of the season, to snap a five-game winless run and clinch the sixth and final playoff berth.
The Nix will visit third-placed finishers Adelaide United on Friday night in the first elimination final, with the winner to advance to a home and away semi-final.
Zawada found the back of the net early in the first half and Wellington professionally closed out the match to register their ninth win of the season.
It is just the team’s fifth clean sheet of the season and comes after conceding 17 goals in their past five matches.
“I was very pleased with the attitude,” Phoenix head coach Ufuk Talay told media post-match. “We showed a lot more desperation defensively, which was great.
“We did well at times on the counter…especially in the second half.
“Overall we did what we needed to do and that was to get a result and get ourselves into finals football.”
The Nix were beaten 5-1 by Adelaide United in their last visit to Coopers Stadium in round 20, but Talay believes there are positives they can take from that defeat.
“I thought we actually played some good football, we just didn’t capitalise on the opportunities that we created.
“They’re a team that plays very open football…so there are strengths and weaknesses we need to exploit and stop at the same time.
“Finals football is different. The approach is a little bit different. You’ve got to have a gameplan in store because it can go to extra time [and] it could go to penalties.
“We’ll plan and prepare well for Adelaide.
“We’ve got a short turnaround. We’ve got a couple of days back in Wellington to refresh the boys and then get on a plane and fly to Adelaide on Wednesday.”
Ufuk Talay made three changes to the XI which started the 4-0 defeat to Western Sydney Wanderers last week, with Lucas Mauragis, Alex Rufer and Kosta Barbarouses coming back into the side in place of Sam Sutton, Clayton Lewis and Bozhidar Kraev. Nikko Boxall came on to the bench in place of Sutton, who’s carrying a minor injury.
Barbarouses had the opportunity to give the Phoenix the dream start when Tim Payne made a driving run from second back and slipped him through on goal in the second minute. But the All Whites forward skied his shot well off-target.
Macarthur players Jake Hollman and Matt Millar also shot over the Nix goal inside the first 10 minutes of the match.
Zawada gave Wellington the lead in the 11th minute, showing great composure before smashing his shot into an unguarded net, after fellow Bulls goalkeeper Filip Kurto had come off his line to save David Ball’s initial shot.
Kurto ensured the Phoenix didn’t double their lead in the 20th minute, making a great save to deny Callan Elliot one-on-one after the right back burst into the box after playing a one-two with Ball.
Moments later Barbarouses came within inches of scoring the Nix’s second, volleying narrowly wide of the left-hand post from a corner.
Macarthur had the majority of the possession in the first-half, but struggled to test Wellington goalkeeper Oli Sail.
Sail did well to parry away a powerful long-range shot from Bulls midfielder Jerry Skotadis shortly before halftime after Phoenix centre back Scott Wootton made a great block to deny Millar from six yards out.
The Nix had more of the ball at the start of the second half, limiting Macarthur’s opportunities to threaten their goal and creating a few of their own.
Steven Ugarkovic, who impressed throughout, called Kurto into action in the 53rd minute with a long-range shot that was well held by the Polish ‘keeper.
A handful of minutes later Macarthur midfielder Jerry Skotadis unleashed his own shot from distance that, much to Sail’s relief, drifted wide of his left-hand post.
Zawada had a great chance an hour into the match to put Wellington up 2-0 when Yan Sasse slipped him through on goal. But the Polish striker dragged his shot narrowly wide of the far post.
The Bulls had an opening of their own moments later, but Hollman was unable to steer his shot on target from close-range after finding some space at the back post.
Macarthur made three attacking substitutions soon after and Talay responded by making his first of the match, bringing on defender Josh Laws, for his 50th A-League appearance, in place of Sasse and joining Scott Wootton and Tim Payne in a back three.
The hosts struggled to break down the Phoenix defence and it wasn’t until late in the match that a couple of the second half substitutes called Oli Sail in action.
Craig Noone came closest to scoring an equaliser in normal time when he weaved his way into the box in the 90th minute, but he wasn’t able to squeeze his shot past Sail from a tight angle.
Macarthur captain Tomislav Uskok rattled the crossbar with a thumping header deep into second half stoppage time, but it wouldn’t have counted if his shot had dipped under the bar as Uskok was judged to be offside.
The final whistle blew moments later to confirm Wellington’s place in the top six.
The Wellington Phoenix will return to the capital on Sunday to prepare for their elimination final against Adelaide United on Friday night.
Wellington Phoenix: 20. Oli SAIL (gk), 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. Steven UGARKOVIC (23. Clayton LEWIS 90+1), 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES (11. Bozhidar KRAEV 81st), 9. Oskar ZAWADA, 10. David BALL, 12. Lucas MAURAGIS, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 17. Callan ELLIOT, 31. Yan SASSE (21. Josh LAWS 67th).
Unused substitutes: 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 15. Nikko BOXALL, 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM.
Macarthur FC: 12. Filip KURTO (gk), 2. Jake MCGING (9. Bachana ARABULI 74th), 6. Tomislav USKOK (c), 8. Jake HOLLMAN (14. Moudi NAJJAR 86th), 11. Kearyn BACCUS, 13. Ivan VUJICA, 16. Oliver JONES (5. Jonathan ASPROPOTAMITIS 46th), 27. Jerry SKOTADIS (17. Craig NOONE 64th), 31. Lachlan ROSE (20. Jason ROMERO 64th), 37. Jed DREW (35. Al Hassan TOURE 64th), 44. Matthew MILLAR.
Unused substitutes: 1. Nicholas SUMAN (gk).
9. Oskar ZAWADA (Wellington Phoenix) – 11th
14. Alex RUFER (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 26th
Ufuk Talay (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 33rd
27. Jerry SKOTADIS (Macarthur FC) – yellow – 55th
11. Kearyn BACCUS (Macarthur FC) – yellow – 77th
21. Josh LAWS (Wellington Phoenix) – yellow – 80th