Wellington’s chances of hosting a home final have been put under threat after the Phoenix lost to Melbourne Victory for the third time this season, at AAMI Park on Friday night.
With Victory already out of the hunt, they had nothing to play for, but it was the Phoenix, five points clear in the race for a home final, who could not get a foothold in their game.
As if to taunt those who still believe Victory could match it with the league’s best, the home side took Phoenix apart, prevailing thanks to an 11th-minute rocket from Carlos Hernandez, a 58th-minute tap-in for Isaka Cernak and a first goal for James Jeggo.
In truth, the scoreline should have been much more lopsided with Archie Thompson, who set up all three goals, somehow unable to put away any of the dozen or so chances which came his way.
But the veteran striker’s disappointment will pale in comparison to that of Ricki Herbert, who saw his team’s three-match unbeaten run pricked in emphatic fashion.
Phoenix, who have not beaten Victory in Melbourne in eight attempts, could see both Newcastle and Melbourne Heart move within two points of them in fourth spot with one match, against Central Coast in Wellington, remaining.
After a relatively quiet first 10 minutes, the match burst to life with a superb Hernandez strike. Fabio won the ball in a dangerous position and moved it quickly to Thompson, who put the burly Costa Rican in the clear.
His 25m effort was crisp and left Mark Paston no chance to save, setting the tone for Victory’s domination for the half.
Thompson had two chances to extend the lead in the space of a minute, by both his header from a Hernandez free kick and another effort from open play went straight at the Phoenix stopper.
Paul Ifill put the first scare through the Victory defence on 19 minutes with a powerful shot which just went wide, while the home side were forced into an early change when Marco Rojas came off second best from a collision with Manny Muscat and was replaced by Cernak.
Thompson had two more chances to break his nine-match scoring drought. The first on 32 minutes saw him beat two defenders and Paston only to be denied by the woodwork, while shortly before the half, he cleverly chipped his opponent but spooned a shot wide. Paston also denied Cernak.
Tim Brown did his best to restore parity for the Phoenix, heading wide from a cross and then hitting a long effort which took Tando Velaphi’s best effort to keep out.
Brown resumed his fruitless flirtation with the back of the net after the break, spurning a free header which would prove the Phoenix’s best chance to get back in the game.
Victory resumed their domination of the match and while Harry Kewell fired over and Thompson was once again denied by Paston despite a great set-up from Hernandez, the second goal came 13 minutes after the break.
Jeggo’s clever pass set Thompson free down the right and he hit a low flat cross which Cernak was there to meet at the far post to score.
In a nod to the future, Victory gave prodigiously talented junior Julius Davies a debut, and he almost capped his appearance with a goal, with Ben Sigmund denying the 17-year-old.
But he did play a role in another youngster’s fabulous late effort, crossing from Thompson to tee up Jeggo who struck the ball home sweetly in the final stages.
Melbourne Victory 3 (Hernandez 11, Cernak 58, Jeggo 89)
Wellington Phoenix 0