A strong battling effort by a new-look Phoenix side has given fans and the new coaching staff plenty to admire after a 1-1 draw against Adelaide United at Westpac Stadium on Sunday night.
Wellington’s record in opening round fixtures has been far from flash – with just one win in ten attempts, but Darije Kalezic has concluded his first A-League match in a positive frame of mind after his side, shorn of three All Whites and late injury victim Gui Finkler, showed plenty of character in a match arguably both sides could have won.
It was a bright start for the home side with captain for the day Roy Krishna earning an early corner inside a minute, before fullback Scott Galloway had Paul Izzo flying for a cross with three minutes on the clock.
If home fans were still unsure about Dario Vidosic’s pedigree the returning Socceroo made the best possible first impression five minutes in.
Matt Ridenton played in a curling free kick which Izzo punched, but only as far as Krishna. The Fijian’s return ball was millimetre perfect as Vidosic rose well at the far stick to nod back across Izzo for the opener.
Having earned the break, Phoenix invited Adelaide back in just four minutes later as Nikola Mileusnic was allowed far too much time to measure a cross. He picked out new Danish winger Johan Absalonsen who nodded home comfortably for 1-1.
After the early fireworks it quickly became a more tense affair as both sides proceeded to feel each other out, especially in midfield.
In the 21st minute it was another set piece that almost delivered rewards for Wellington, Ridenton again with an excellent ball in and centre back Marco Rossi rose well, but headed over with just Izzo to beat.
There were a few nervy moments for young goalkeeper Keegan Smith, as Adelaide whipped into some dangerous balls into the ‘corridor of uncertainty’, but Smith rose well, beating highly-rated Algerian Karim Matmour to a ball whipped in from Mileusnic.
The save of the half came from Izzo however as Phoenix’s Serbian striker Andrija Kaludjerovic turned sharply inside the box to find half a yard in the 39th minute, but his thumping shot was well stopped by a strong right hand from Adelaide’s custodian. 1-1 the half-time score.
It was more of the same cut-and-thrust after the break as Matmour fired a warning shot over the bows in the 50th minute, before Kaludjerovic had the Reds defence scrambling with a sharp chest control and snap shot.
Ersan Gulum went into the book for a series of fouls on Krishna before the Fijian fed Vidosic on a rapid counter attack in the 66th minute but the Australian fired his shot straight at Izzo.
Momentum then seemed to shift both ways as Rossi found himself the unlikely free man inside the box following a corner, but the Italian scooped his shot over.
And just as the Phoenix looked most in control it was Adelaide who began to fashion the better chances. An error from the otherwise metronomic Goran Paracki put his defence under pressure and in the 75th minute it was teenage keeper Smith with a brilliant point-blank save from George Blackwood.
Matmour continued to look lively and he put a fine ball on for Absalonsen but the Dane blasted his effort off-target.
As the final minutes arrived both sides then oscillated between looking dangerous, pressing for the win, and also looking eager to not overextend.
Ridenton had Izzo scrambling in the 80th minute to tip a speculative effort over his crossbar, before a flurry of chances in added time had both sets of fans with hearts in mouths.
Matmour could have done better with a header at the death, before Paracki almost capped a terrific debut with a late winner, but his snatched shot sliced just wide of the goals.
1-1 the final score with both European coaches starting their A-League careers with a share of the points.