The Wellington Phoenix showed they can play with grit as well as style as they ground out a 2-0 win over fellow title contenders Adelaide United at a wet and windy Hutt Recreation Ground on Saturday evening.
The match was always going to be a close encounter with the two teams boasting the best defensive records in the A-League, and in the end the difference came down to the class of two strikers in Nathan Burns and the Phoenix’ new recruit Joel Griffiths.
On signing Griffiths on a short-term contract Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick said he had acquired the former Jets striker “because he scores goals” and that summation was spot on.
With the game seemingly heading towards a scoreless draw Griffiths, making his second appearance off the bench, made a near-post run to turn the ball past outstanding Adelaide keeper Eugene Galekovic to give his team the lead in the 79th minute.
Four minutes later Burns netted his 12th goal of the season with a powerful downwards header from a Roly Bonevacia free-kick.
All season the Phoenix have been drawing praise for their attacking football which has tended to deflect from the solidity of a defence anchored by the superb central defensive duo of captain Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund.
Sigmund took the “man of the match” award but Durante would have run him close with a performance that belied the fact he had to get through a match-day fitness test to take his place in the line-up.
Coming hard on the heels of a stunning win over Victory in Melbourne six days earlier, Merrick was delighted with his team’s effort.
“It wasn’t the best performance but it’s the type of performance where you’ve really got to grind out a result,” he said.
Merrick was also pleased that his gamble of signing Griffiths has paid dividends so early in the piece.
“That’s exactly what he does,” the coach said of Griffiths.
“He is very competitive. He doesn’t take anything from opposition defences.
“He rarely gives the ball away and when the ball is in the box he’s in there and that’s why he’s got a tremendous goal-scoring reputation.”
Next on the agenda for the Phoenix, who moved to the top of the ladder for a few hours, is away to long-time league leaders Perth Glory who went back to the top after drawing 1-1 with Melbourne Victory later in the evening.
Wellington Phoenix: Glen Moss, Michael Boxall, Andrew Durante, Ben Sigmund, Louis Fenton, Albert Riera, Roly Bonevacia, Alex Rodriguez, Michael McGlinchey (Vince Lia 70m), Roy Krishna (Joel Griffiths 60m), Nathan Burns (Jason Hicks 94m).