Wellington Phoenix have upset the bookmakers, home fans and one of the A-League’s better performing teams with a gutsy 3-2 win on the road in Newcastle on Saturday night.
With few fancying the visitors despite their strong form since Christmas it was an attacking lineup named by Darije Kalezić as both sides looked to go for all three points.
Goals to Matija Ljujić, Daniel Mullen and Roy Krishna proved enough in the end, but the visitors were indebted to man of the match Lewis Italiano early on.
On numerous occasions this season it’s been the Phoenix that have flown out of the blocks, but it was the home side on the front foot early, with talented Argentinian Pato Rodriguez taking just 24 seconds to fashion an early sighter.
Italiano read the play well to dive in ahead of Jason Hoffman, before Nathan Burns, in his first start since his return to the club, almost embarrassed the Jets’ No.1 with a cheeky lofted effort that almost slid through Jack Duncan’s hands.
Andrew Nabbout and Dimitri Petratos were pulling the strings as the Jets looked to strike early but it was Steven Ugarkovic who opened the Phoenix defence with an incisive ball to put in Daniel Georgievski.
The fullback elected to cross, but a scrambled clearance fell back to the Macedonian international whose follow-up effort was denied by Italiano who palmed round the post.
It was all hands to the pump as Jets laid siege with a series of corners and freekicks before Italiano pulled off a terrific save in the 20th minute, diving at the feet to deny Hoffman.
Ljujić hadn’t seen much of the ball in his first start for the Phoenix but it was another moment of magic that turned the match eight minutes later.
From an innocuous throw in, the Serbian attacking midfielder drifted inside his marker and curled a tantalising cross. Michael McGlinchey attracted the attention of Duncan but didn’t connect with his header, as Ljujić’s effort nestled inside the post.
The goal lifted the visitors and fine work from Burns and McGlinchey won a corner in the 36th minute. Matt Ridenton fired in a dangerous ball and it was former Jet Mullen who ghosted inside his marker to head home and double the advantage.
Just before half-time it could have been three, as Krishna expertly spun his marker before picking out Andrija Kaludjerović in the middle. The cross was slightly behind the Serbian but his connection wasn’t strong, to the relief of Duncan.
2-0 to the Phoenix at the break, after the hosts survived an early onslaught.
If the message from Darije Kalezić was to keep things tight, it was the worst conceivable start to the second half as a fine backheel from Rodriguez send Georgievski clear, he drew the last defender before picking out Nabbout who finished with aplomb. 2-1 in just the 47th minute.
Phoenix refused to be overawed however and kept their workrate high. Kaludjerović finding Ljujić free in the area in the 54th but his effort was well-held but a clash of heads in the process with Jets captain saw Nigel Boogaard leave the pitch.
Minutes later Phoenix had the breathing room they wanted once again, fine running from Burns drew two defenders before the wily striker found a teammate. Krishna expertly picked out in the box and the Fijian fooled his marker brilliantly before firing home a curling effort to make it 3-1.
His 32nd goal for the Phoenix, and Krishna could have equalled Paul Ifill’s club record 33 just four minutes later but his thumping strike from outside the box cannoned off the crossbar.
Jets looked to rally, but it was looking comfortable for the visitors until a late penalty shout in the 84th. Youngster Angus Thurgate going to ground under slight contact, Marco Rossi adjudged to have tugged the shirt.
Italiano got a good hand to Petratos’ driven shot, but couldn’t prevent it from finding the net, setting up a nervous last ten minutes or so.
Thurgate again going to ground in the 93rd minute following a collision with Durante but the VAR waved it away as Wellington held on for a crucial three points.
Seven points in their last three games as the Phoenix continue their fine form in 2018, now just five points outside the playoffs ahead of their next home game Saturday 27 January.
Wellington Phoenix 3 – 2 Newcastle Jets (Ljujić 28’, Mullen 36’, Krishna 58’; Nabbout 48’, Petratos 86’ [pen])