Melbourne Victory goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos has put in an heroic turn, saving Karl Dodd’s penalty to give the Victory a thrilling victory over the Wellington Phoenix in the Hyundai A-League Pre-Season Cup final.
The Phoenix hosted the Victory in an action-packed final that went down to penalties after both sides fought out a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes at Westpac Stadium on Wednesday evening.
A bumper crowd of 9,208 turned up on a cool and clear evening to watch history unfold, as the home side became the first ever New Zealand side to contest for silverware in an Australian competition.
Spurred on by the home support, the Phoenix started brightly and took the game to their opponents. Their high-industry approach made an impact as early as the second minute, when winger Leo Bertos evaded his marker with a clever nutmeg inside the box.
He was subsequently brought down but the penalty claims were waived away by referee Peter O’Leary.
Only a minute later, Victory stopper Theoklitos was called into action for the first time in the match. Phoenix striker Shane Smeltz created an opening out wide, with his subsequent cross being partially cleared straight to Richard Johnson, who hit a volley straight to Theoklitos from 20 yards out.
It took until the 10th minute for the visitors to create their first foray towards goal. Matthew Kemp made a smart break down the left and hit a teasing cross which Phoenix stopper Glenn Moss only just managed to hold on to.
However, the Phoenix soon regained their early dominance and were unlucky in both the 12th and 13th minutes, as two respective Adam Kwasnik efforts were blocked by defenders on their way towards goal.
Their next chance came three minutes later, when a free kick was headed over by Kwasnik from inside the Victory box. The Phoenix again threatened from a free kick on 29 minutes, when Leo Bertos- low, powerful drive was well held by Theoklitos.
The home side looked sharp and slick during the first half hour, and played at a high tempo. But as the half wore on, the visitors began to show their class and began to impose themselves onto proceedings.
In the 41st minute, Danny Allsopp had their best chance of the half, with a shot from 20 yards, although Moss was well positioned to smother the danger.
The sides went into the break on level pegging, and it only took a few minutes for the action to re-commence in the second period. Bertos was again the danger man out wide for the home side, and in the 47th minute he was able to evade Evan Berger and hit a dangerous cross across the face of the Melbourne goal which no-one was able to connect with.
However, Melbourne began the second half as they finished the first, and created space early. Nick Ward found space to shoot on 49 minutes, but his shot went harmlessly high and wide.
The ensuing period was a battle in the midfield, with both sides struggling for fluency on the ball. The next piece of action came in the 55th minute when a fracas erupted following a Phoenix free kick. Jon McKain was adjudged to have fouled Theoklitos while contesting for the ball, and the ‘keeper was not slow to show the Phoenix skipper his displeasure.
Both sides continued to pressure each other, and both had to settle for scraps on goal during the remainder of the half. Neither side was able to carve out a clear chance as both defences coped well, with able assistance from their respective midfields.
The best chance of the match came from a set piece clearance in the 68th minute. A Leo Bertos free kick was headed clear, with the loose ball falling to Richard Johnson. The midfielder hit a volley from 20 yards out which was brilliantly saved by Theoklitos, stretching away to his left.
Theoklitos was again the hero for the home side, this time in the 80th minute. Bertos was again able to evade Berger and deliver a teasing ball into the Melbourne box. Smeltz made a good run and hit a powerful header goalwards, only for the Melbourne custodian to throw himself to his left and deny the opening goal.
Melbourne had a late attempt from new recruit Jose Luis Lopez fly over the bar in the final minute of normal time, after they created space well in the final third.
With the rules of the Pre-Season cup, there was no extra time, and the match went straight to penalties. Shane Smeltz missed for the home side whilst Nick Ward missed for the visitors in the opening five spot kicks. After four more excruciating penalties each, Theoklitos was able to deny Karl Dodd and hand the title to the Melbourne Victory.