Wellington showed spirit to grab a crucial late equaliser to even out a Video Assistant Referee-awarded penalty for Sydney FC in a tense and engrossing 1-1 encounter at Westpac Stadium on Saturday night.
With so much at stake – a place in the A-League finals for Wellington and a chance at a record season points tally for Sydney FC – the decision to allow the introduction of Video Assistant Referees just two rounds before the finals series was always going to raise eyebrows.
And while the decision to award a 70th minute penalty to the recently-crowned Premiers Sydney FC may overshadow discussions about the match, Michael McGlinchey’s added-time equaliser has handed Phoenix the most slender of lifelines for their finals hopes, and many would argue, no less than their performance deserved.
It was an uncharacteristically subdued start as both sides took a few minutes to find their feet. A lovely passage in the 7th minute saw Gui Finkler free down the left and with Danny Vukovic off his line the Brazilian tried a looping cross that sailed just over the crossbar.
Preferred to Glen Moss in goals Lewis Italiano had a nervous moment as he came but failed to clear a long ball, but he recovered well to deny Alex Brosque’s subsequent shot.
With twenty minutes gone, Wellington began to enjoy the lion’s share of possession, finding their passing rhythm as Finkler first almost found Kosta Barbarouses with an incisive throughball, before the Sydney FC defence also scrambled well to deny Tom Doyle.
A quickly taken freekick had released the left fullback but his cross was well intercepted.
In the 27th minute Roy Krishna drew the first real save of the game, with Nix’s former goalkeeper Danny Vukovic getting a strong left hand to the Fijian’s stinging shot.
Krishna then came in for some close attention almost immediately afterwards as the Nix leading goalscorer was kicked heavily on the ankle by Aaron Calver who went into the book for his late attempted clearance.
If the Fijian was feeling any ill affect it didn’t show as a terrific reverse ball jinked over the top from Krishna almost found Barbarouses one-on-one, but it just wouldn’t sit for the man who has struck six goals against the Sky Blues, and Vukovic again did well to prevent the chance.
In the shadow of half-time it was Krishna again who drew a terrific save from Vukovic, who stretched well to tip the Nix sharpshooter’s effort around the post, before Andrew Durante popped up as the unlikely figure to volley a shot straight at the Sydney FC custodian from the resulting corner.
Nil-nil then at half-time, with the Phoenix enjoying four shots to one on target.
In the second stanza Sydney FC came out brightly – Bobo nodded a header goalwards, but straight at Italiano, before a turnover in midfield allowed Brosque to run at the defence, before dragging his shot wide to the relief of the vocal Phoenix fans.
It was then the Phoenix’s turn to impress, in the 51st minute a terrific flowing break saw Roly Bonevacia release Krishna out left who left Alex Wilkinson behind with his pace before standing up a cross for Finkler at the back post.
The Brazilian cushioned a lovely first-time ball back to Barbarouses but his volley was well-held by Vukovic.
It was Finkler who came closer than anyone to that point in breaking the deadlock, as after a loose ball after a Nix corner the former Victory man went just millimetres wide with a delicate lob over a stranded Vukovic that just missed the left-hand upright.
Graham Arnold had seen enough and brought on Bernie Ibini for David Carney on the hour mark and they produced a fine chance just minutes later when Italiano was forced into an excellent save from Bobo’s header.
With the game finely poised Des Buckingham and Chris Greenacre went to their bench as McGlinchey came on for the hard-working Alex Rodriguez.
In the 70th minute a moment of controversy that many feared pre-game arrived, as following a crossed ball several Sydney FC players surrounded referee Shaun Evans and after a few moments delay the referee called for the assistance of the Video Assistant Referees.
After several viewings it was adjudged that the ball struck Rossi’s hand and a penalty was awarded – Bobo made no mistake thumping past Italiano to open the scoring.
If Phoenix fans felt aggrieved they were livid moments later as Krishna was felled by a heavy sliding tackle inside the Sydney FC penalty box but no call to the VARs was placed.
With a ready excuse in place Wellington stuck to their task however, as Shane Smeltz came on for Ryan Lowry and Phoenix moved to a back three to chase the game.
As Phoenix pushed further forward their reward came deep into added time. A lofted ball was nodded back across goal by Doyle to McGlinchey who nestled a fine header past Vukovic to send the loyal Wellington fans into rapture.
There was still time for another potential VAR moment – in a helter-skelter last minute Wellington players felt they had a shout for first handball and then a penalty.
The fourth official advised the coaching benchs that the incident was going to be reviewed, but referee Shaun Evans proceeded to then blow full-time.
Irrespective of the decisions made off the pitch, it was a performance from the hosts in keeping with their strong form over recent weeks.
With one point gained Wellington’s finals hopes now hang on tonight’s other two games with both Western Sydney Wanderers and Perth in action later on.