They huffed, they puffed and for the best part of 90 minutes, they outplayed Melbourne Victory on their own patch, but Wellington Phoenix couldn’t quite blow AAMI Park down.
Manager Mark Rudan pulled a surprise pre-match by benching starlet playmaker Sarpreet Singh, and drafting Ryan Lowry in at wingback.
Meanwhile, Kevin Muscat recalled Lawrence Thomas between the sticks, and benched his outgoing captain Carl Valeri for Elvis Kamsoba, shifting Raul Baena to the base of his diamond midfield.
The game was tetchy and spiteful in the first half, with both benches sniping at one another and braying for every call.
Wellington were on top from the outset, penning Victory deep into their own half and suffocating any attempts to play through the lines of pressure. Roy Krishna stung the palms of Thomas with a low drive, before Lowry found the side netting following a sweeping counterattack.
But for all Wellington’s dominance, Victory went in ahead at half time. A splendid Keisuke Honda free kick found the head of Georg Niedermeier, who had been completely lost by his marker Andrew Durante. The German did brilliantly to readjust his body and glance his header almost backwards into the top corner.
Victory swapped to a more balanced 4-3-3 after the break, but Wellington continued to dictate proceedings, albeit not on the scoresheet. That was until the 53rd minute, when a horror turnover proved the visitors’ undoing.
Mandi was the culprit, side-footing several yards short of his intended teammate. Ola Toivonen capitalised, sliding a perfectly-measured through ball for Kosta Barbarouses to score.
The Phoenix briefly rallied, with super-sub Sarpreet Singh producing a delightful early ball for Krishna to pull a goal back. Wellington threw numbers forward, but individual quality eventually told, Toivonen adding a stylish goal of his own to rubber-stamp the win.
“Sydney FC, we’re coming for you!” sang the North End as the game entered stoppage time. Victory have a knack for the big games – could they do the improbable for the second year in a row?