Talking Points: Phoenix show they can go where no Kiwi side has gone before

Wellington Phoenix proved they are ready to deliver their best ever Hyundai A-League finish after a Champions-like performance downed second-placed Melbourne City. 

Sydney FC’s astonishingly consistent form means that the Premiership may be out of sight for Wellington, but Ufuk Talay’s side showed similar characteristics to the runaway leaders and sent a warning shot to their Finals Series rivals.

A safe-handed goalkeeper, rock-solid defence and pair of dynamic midfield protectors ensured the competition’s second highest scoring team were limited, while a clinical, devastating counter-attack punished a momentary lapse in Erick Mombaerts’ defence to clinch a 1-0 win in front of a bumper 15,000 plus crowd at Eden Park in Auckland.

After a rampaging burst down the right, Gary Hooper – whose powers are evolving week-by-week as his fitness improves – produced the service for dead-eye finisher David Ball as Phoenix showcased they were far from a one-man team, which Mexican magician Ulises Davila’s sparkling displays may have tempted some to suggest earlier in the season.

Taking another leaf out of his former employers’ Sky Blue playbook, Talay was forced to start with Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi as a third-choice right-back, in the absence of injured Louis Fenton and the suspended Tim Payne, and still maintained the high defensive standards set by the rest of his backline.

The depth Phoenix have across their midfield means model-of-consistency Alex Rufer had to watch 86 minutes from the bench, while impressive wide men Jaushua Sotirio and Callum McCowatt form an orderly queue to grab precious minutes behind incumbent starter Reno Piscopo.

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Highlights: Wellington Phoenix 1-0 Melbourne City

The Kiwi club are now three points behind City with a game in hand, are the only team to have drawn with Premiers-elect Sydney FC, and are two points off their best ever record after 17 Hyundai A-League matches (29 in 2014/15).

That Nathan Burns-led squad recorded a fourth-placed finish, the third time a ‘Nix side had done so, but they have never ascended the Hyundai A-League podium to claim first, second or third.

While writing club history would be just reward for Talay’s remarkable one-season rebuild in his maiden campaign as a head coach, there is no reason why the Yellow and Black faithful should stop dreaming there.

Against a City side, admittedly in relative free-fall having only won two of their last six, Phoenix showed the gritty qualities required to win knockout football matches against quality opposition.

This is not a team without weakness – especially on their extensive travels – as was exposed in the recent 4-2 reverse against Perth Glory, and perhaps a surge towards a runners-up spot would present their best chance in the Hyundai A-League Finals Series, ensuring the road to the Grand Final goes through the ‘cake tin’ at Sky Stadium.

But this Wellington Phoenix side have no reason to feel like underdogs against any rival and, after their next three games against sides outside of the top six, they will have another chance to prove their Championship calibre in a mouth-watering showdown against Sydney FC at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on Wednesday, 18 March.

REPORT: Ball flattens City as Phoenix shore up top six spot
REACTION: ‘Sensational’ Hooper showed Premier League quality says ‘Nix boss Talay

Prodigious talent Toure lights up Coopers Stadium

On any ordinary match day, George Blackwood’s wonderful curling finish to break the deadlock late on would have taken the headlines – but that was before a 15-year-old schoolboy’s extraordinary talent electrified Coopers Stadium.

Blackwood is an exciting young Olyroos prospect but Adelaide United’s latest breakout sensation is seven years his junior. Mohamed Toure made sure it was a night to remember in Hindmarsh after netting on his home debut to become the youngest ever Hyundai A-League goalscorer in a 2-0 win against the Central Coast Mariners.

The younger brother of another rising Reds prospect, 19-year-old Al Hassan Toure, was the star of the City of Churches as Adelaide fans waited behind for selfies and signatures in order to tell their friends and families that ‘they were there’ on that fateful night.

While the younger Toure has showcased his prodigious ability when unleashed for 20 minutes over two matches, head coach Gertjan Verbeek issued a notice of caution that he may be ready for 15-20 minute cameos but it is still is far too early on Toure’s learning curve for him to feature from the start.

Toure's dazzling emergence may be impossible to ignore, but credit must go to maverick coach Verbeek. The Dutchman had the bravery to throw him in the deep end, as he did with his big brother Al Hassan and with Louis D'Arrigo, who at 18 year old has started 16 of the Reds' 17 matches, filling the boots of club legend Isaias in the Reds' midfield.

Highlights: Adelaide United 2-0 Central Coast Mariners

REPORT: Blackwood screamer and historic Toure goal sees Adelaide stun Mariners
REACTION: 15-year-old Toure stunned by goal but brother Al Hassan always believed
MORE: Verbeek reveals 15-year old sensation made defenders 'struggle' in training
15 years, 325 days: Toure becomes the Hyundai A-League's youngest scorer

Roar and United switch positions after change in fortunes

The date is December 13, 2019 and Western United have beaten Brisbane 2-0 at Suncorp Stadium to climb to third in the ladder with 16 points, while Roar slip to ninth place on eight points from nine matches.

Spin the clock forward 66 days and Robbie Fowler’s side now have their revenge on the Hyundai A-League newboys thanks to a goal from substitute Mirza Muratovic and have opened up a four-point gap on United between sixth and seventh.

During that time, Fowler’s outfit have hit their straps, losing only once in eight outings, while Mark Rudan’s side have claimed only one win in seven attempts and departed Mars Stadium in Ballarat empty-handed for the second time.

Both teams have endured a lot of player turnover in those couple of months. The main difference being Roar’s was by design, with Corey Brown and Scott McDonald coming into camp while Stefan Mauk and Roy O’Donovan were let go. United have been forced to deal with the losses of Connor Chapman, Ersan Gülüm and McDonald by recruiting and leaning on young NPL prospects, Oskar Dillon and Tomislav Uskok, as well as Japanese veteran Tomoki Imai – whose howler on debut handed Brisbane the three points on Sunday.

Besart Berisha’s assessment was a damning one after the Green and Black did not register a shot on target: “We cannot win games like this. We did not deserve to win the way we played. We have to go again, a short turn around, and we have to play better football because this was not good.”

Highlights: Western United 0-1 Brisbane Roar

REPORT: Muratovic punishes Western United as Roar open up finals advantage
REACTION: Inman sings praises of 'little bro' Muratovic after match-winning cameo

Opportunity knocks for lowly Wanderers and Jets in Round 20

Two struggling sides collided in Saturday night’s clash between Western Sydney Wanderers and Newcastle Jets and neither walked away with the desired new manager bounce following a 1-1 stalemate draw.

Wanderers interim head coach Jean-Paul de Marigny saw his side start well but fizzle out, while new Jets tactician Carl Robinson’s side flipped the script with a slow opening topped off with a strong finish.

For either club to realise their fading Hyundai A-League Finals Series ambitions, results need to arrive sooner rather than later and both have winnable home matches on the horizon in Round 20.

Western Sydney fans have not witnessed three points at Bankwest Stadium since the epic Round 4 Sydney Derby and face an Adelaide side that have lost four of their last five on the road, and fell 3-2 to the Red and Black at home back in Round 12. 

Meanwhile, Robinson hopes to finally introduce marquee man Wes Hoolahan to Jets supporters as Melbourne Victory arrive in the Hunter only four days after playing an Asian Champions League match in the Korea Republic.

Highlights: Western Sydney Wanderers 1-1 Newcastle Jets

REPORT: Millar salvages Newcastle a point in Robinson's first match
REACTION: Jets coach Robinson ‘itching’ to hand Hoolahan his debut