A thumping 30m finish from Phoenix’s new Serbian midfielder Matija Ljujic was the highlight of an entertaining clash at Westpac Stadium as Wellington carved out another 23 shots in a game that had everything except a late winner.
Fans left with Ljujic’s name on their lips, with many Nix faithful waiting long after full-time near the tunnel for the new signing to finish his post-game media duties to give the Serbian a special ovation.
It was the home side that came out firing with Phoenix needing just 12 seconds to almost fashion an opening, Andrija Kaludjerovic found with a direct pass but he couldn’t quite fashion a shot.
Roly Bonevacia marked his return to Westpac Stadium with the Wanderers only effort on target of the first quarter of the game, but thereafter it was very much Wellington in the ascendancy.
In the 10th minute, Roy Krishna won possession about 30m out and played a fine one-two with Michael McGlinchey but his well-struck effort was beaten behind by Vedran Janjetovic.
Two minutes later Tom Doyle fired in a dangerous cross that had the Wanderers’ custodian flapping, but Michael Thwaite recovered well to knock behind before it could reach an unmarked Kaludjerovic.
The Serbian then rolled an effort agonisingly past the far post as Phoenix looked to turn the screws, racking up nine shooting opportunities.
With 28 minutes gone however it was an innocuous opener, and who else but Brendon Santalab with his eighth goal in five matches against the Phoenix, volleying home a loose ball that fell kindly after a freekick was lumped into the mix.
From there it was Wanderers creating the better chances with Mark Bridge dragging one wide before Lewis Italiano scrambled well to tip a looping Oriel Riera header over his bar.
Trailing by one at the break Phoenix head coach Darije Kalezić had seen enough, and in the second half both Nathan Burns and Matija Ljujic entered the fray as the Dutchman switched to a more attacking 4-3-3.
It took hardly any time for the Johnny Warren medallist to get involved, just four minutes in he skipped past Raul Llorente to fire a ball in for Kaludjerovic but the Wanderers defence scrambled well to clear.
Six minutes later it was Burns again picking out Krishna at the far post but the Fijian could only ripple the side netting as Phoenix began to really ratchet up the pressure.
An injury to Dylan Fox saw Kalezić empty his bench inside the hour as he played his third substitution and Scott Galloway came on, but it was his other half-time substitute who then put his name up in lights.
After a terrific tackle from captain Andrew Durante won possession in midfield he passed to Ljujic who only ever had one thing in mind. He took a touch before thumping a stinging effort with his full bodyweight behind it to rifle past Janjetovic.
Three minutes later it was almost a spectacular second as a racing Krishna drew Janjetovic off his line, but the ‘keeper’s clearing header only went as far as Ljujic who improvised a remarkable first-time effort from about 40m but if faded agonisingly wide, with the Wanderers custodian well out of his box.
Roy Krishna switched flanks and gave Llorente a torrid time, but it was Brendan Hamill who saw red in the 87th minute for a second yellow offence.
With Wanderers on the ropes, in added time it was the unlikely figure of Matthew Ridenton with the chance to seal the win for Wellington – a lung-bursting run from deep saw the midfielder played through by Ljujic, but he appeared to be caught in two minds with Kaludjerovic for company and his final effort was underhit.
1-1 the final score to the relief of Josep Gombau and the strong contingent of travelling Western Sydney Wanderers fans.
Phoenix now travel to Newcastle to take on the high-flying Jets before returning to Westpac Stadium on Saturday 27 January for the visit of Adelaide United.