UNLIKE the crowd at a sodden Westpac Stadium, there was no ducking for cover for the Wellington Phoenix tonight, beaten in a six-goal thriller by the Melbourne Victory in a Hyundai A-League round two match in the capital.
The Phoenix-s home venue might be dubbed the Ring of Fire by fans but any flames generated by the home team in front of 6110 fans were extinguished by the rain-soaked surface and a clinical Victory side that took its chances to secure a crucial 4-2 away win.
Despite starting the stronger of the two sides, the Phoenix went behind in the 16th minute when Danny Allsopp-s low drive slipped under keeper Glen Moss – the Wellington keeper making the first of several uncharacteristic errors on a night he will quickly want to forget.
Super-striker Shane Smeltz got the Phoenix back on level terms in the 29th minute when he headed a precision Tony Lochhead cross underneath Victory keeper Mitch Langerak.
But when Allsopp chipped the ball past Moss in the 35th minute and Ney Fabiano scored another just after halftime, the Phoenix were always playing catch-up. Smeltz gave the home side a sniff with a penalty in the 64th minute but Victory skipper Kevin Muscat snuffed hopes of a stunning comeback less than 60 seconds later, nailing his side-s fourth from the spot.
Both sides had a raft of chances throughout the match but it was the Victory-s more clinical finishing and some disappointing Phoenix defending that was most telling in the wash-up.
Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert could take solace from the fact that his team performed much better than it did against the Queensland Roar in their 1-1 draw last weekend. The hosts started positively, dominated for long periods, created promising chances and controlled possession well through their hard-working midfield of Richard Johnson, Troy Hearfield, Michael Ferrante and Daniel.
“We didn-t play badly but there were four critical decisions and four critical mistakes. That-s going to cost you – and it did. It-s a little unfortunate that we played worse against Queensland and came away with a point, but that-s football sometimes.”
Herbert said there were no excuses for the loss, be it the performance of any particular individual or the appalling conditions under foot.
“We-ve certainly only got ourselves as a team to blame. The conditions were difficult and shifting the ball wasn-t easy. We wanted to play the style of attractive football we know we-re good at, get the ball forward and be competitive. The conditions, unfortunately, didn-t allow that – but it wasn-t easy for them [Melbourne], either.”
Shipping four goals was not necessarily a fair reflection of the performance of the back four and the keeper, Herbert said.
“Glen was excellent last season and he proved how good he is against Queensland last weekend. He-ll put his hand up and say it wasn-t his best performance tonight, but he-s only human. He-ll bounce back.
“We did get exposed at the back a few times, but that-s always going to happen in this league and opportunities will always be created by both sides. We got in behind Melbourne a few times, too. From our perspective it-s a case of being better at dealing with threats at the back.”
Experienced right back David Mulligan will feature prominently in Herbert-s thinking leading into Saturday-s first away match against Adelaide United.
“We do have some options to explore in the back four – we-ve got Dave ready after some midweek games, which is good – and that adds to thinking around selection.”
The performance of Hearfield, in particular, was extremely heartening.
“We did shift the ball across a difficult pitch and I thought Troy was excellent. He-s been used primarily as an impact player in the past and this was his first real opportunity to play 90 minutes in the A-League. I think he showed just how potent a threat he can be going forward.
“So there are positives we can take away from this. We go to Adelaide now and that-ll be tough. But those are the challenges we want to face and we-ve got a side capable of stepping up to those challenges.”
Hyundai A-League – Round two
Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne Victory
Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Wellington Phoenix 2 (Shane Smeltz 29-, 65- pen)
Melbourne Victory 4 (Danny Allsopp 16-, 35-, Ney Fabiano 47-, Kevin Muscat 68- pen)