With all eyes on two of Wellington’s most experienced players and their respective landmarks it was a player whose career is just in its infancy who captured the imagination of the faithful as Phoenix edged a drama-packed Distance Derby 2-1 on Saturday night.
With just 124 A-League minutes to his name Sarpreet Singh is a player some Hyundai A-League fans might not know too much about, but for Phoenix faithful who have followed his journey from the Wellington Phoenix Soccer Schools in Auckland to the Wellington Phoenix Football Academy and now Australasia’s biggest stage, waiting another three minutes was more than worth their patience.
Wellington might have left it late to secure the points at Westpac Stadium but the manner in which the performance was bookended – opening with power, finishing with poise – would have delighted those fans who continued to keep the faith on a warm night in Wellington.
Having warned after the heavy Wanderers defeat that ‘natural selection’ would be at play, coach Darije Kalezić rang the changes before kickoff, new signings Tando Velaphi and Monty Patterson both came in for home debuts but it was the starting debut for Singh that many home fans were keenly anticipating.
And in Phoenix’s first foray forward a layoff from Matija Ljujic found the youngster, he took two touches as Perth’s defensive line retreated and then fired an unstoppable swerving effort top bins. A sparkling start for the Phoenix.
Both sides enjoyed moments heading forward with Perth’s Andy Keogh and Diego Castro reliably prominent. Singh then showed his skills at the other end snuffing out a dangerous transition tackling one-on-one inside the box then starting a counter.
In the 19th minute Phoenix almost created a second. Scott Neville blocked a promising run forward by Tom Doyle with his hand, with Liam Reddy just preventing Dylan Fox from connecting at the far post from the resulting freekick.
Shane Lowry then went in the book as momentum looked very much with the hosts, with Singh then picking out Andrija Kaludjerovic in the box after a fine passage of play. The Serbian striker turned well, but his effort was blocked by some desperate Glory defence.
Reddy was again his side’s saviour as Doyle met a Matthew Ridenton corner with 33 minutes gone but with Phoenix on top a minute later it was a moment of class that brought Perth back into the contest.
Using his intelligence to draw a foul from Fox in a dangerous area, the mercurial Spaniard than thumped home a tracer bullet freekick, that nestled inside Velaphi’s near post to make it 1-1.
In the shadow of half-time only a brilliant save from Reddy prevented Phoenix again taking the lead, after Ljujic curled a fine effort from the outside of the box only for the former Nix custodian to scramble brilliantly to tip around the post.
In the second half it was a welcome return for Roy Krishna, recovered from a hamstring complaint and having re-signed for the club midweek, with Patterson making way.
It took just seven minutes for the Fijian to threaten, with a sharply struck effort that was reminiscent of his strike against Brisbane Roar in Round 4, but whizzed just past Reddy’s post as the Fijian looked to equal Paul Ifill’s club record tally of 33 goals.
Velaphi then did brilliantly to save at the feet of Joel Chianese in the 62nd minute, suffering a heavy collision for his bravery before Kaludjerovic spurned a fine opportunity at the other end when he fired wide from close range in the 69th.
Velaphi again denied the lively Chianese with a fine fingertip save, but his best was to come in the 81st after a contentious penalty decision involving Castro.
The Spaniard making the most of contact from a coming together with Scott Galloway to earn referee Alex King’s whistle, but he was outfoxed by a man who was until recently his training partner.
Velaphi shaped to go to ground early as Glory’s talisman began his runup, only to stand tall and comfortably receive the ‘panenka’ effort at midriff level to the despair of Perth’s players and coaching staff.
With time running out the purposeful Krishna increasingly looked the man most likely, and on the stroke of 90 minutes Phoenix finally got their reward.
Making his 200th Hyundai A-League appearance Michael McGlinchey showed great intelligence with a man on his back to flick a ball into the path of Krishna, whose drilled effort was turned home by the unfortunate Shane Lowry.
No more than the balance of chances perhaps merited as Phoenix recorded a third win in 2018 and the chance to go above Central Coast Mariners on the table when the two sides clash next Friday.