FRESH from a confidence boosting win over Melbourne Victory, Darije Kalezić found his Wellington Phoenix trailing to Western Sydney Wanderers on their own turf.
The Nix have been much criticised for their torrid season so far, but 1-0 down, the injection of Nathan Burns, and then impressive new signing Matija Ljujic, for his third appearance for the club, turned the game on its head.
It was a double change that can change the entire nature of Wellington’s underwhelming season.
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Burns, a former Johnny Warren Medal winner for the club, looks like being an enormous boon for the struggling club, but it was Ljujic who stole the headlines with a sparkling, unstoppable strike past Vedran Janjetovic to level proceedings.
It was much deserved, and with Western Sydney down to 10 men in the final minutes after Brendan Hamill picked up a second yellow, Matthew Ridenton had a glorious chance at the death to snatch all three points but shot meekly at Janjetovic, with an apoplectic Andrija Kaluđerović waiting for a tap-in at the far post.
The change worked for the hosts, but with the Wanderers overrun in the second term, they’ve now dropped 12 points from winning positions – they would sit third if they’d even claimed half that amount back.
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“Wellington should have won that, especially at the end … they deserved to win. Second-half they were outstanding,” Mark Bosnich assessed on Fox Sports at full-time.
“The double change … proved to be another masterstroke … second-half, all Wellington.”
On the Wanderers’ second-half regression, he added: “I’m more looking at the way they play – they lose control of the game. They don’t have anyone to put their foot on the ball and say ‘listen, let’s play it around. This possession based game should be tiring out the other team, not the other way around’. They lose it a couple of times, they just drop back a bit, they drop the initiative of the game. It’s something they’ve got to look at.”
Archie Thompson added: “The changes Wellington made were perfect – they needed a bit of spark up front, as soon as western Sydney scored they went flat and into their shell.”
Gombau once again started with perennial super-sub Brendon Santalab, up top with Oriel Riera, and by the time the veteran was substituted in the second-half, his job was done.
The question is: did the substitution come too early, and play into Wellington’s hands?
Santalab was not happy when his night was over with 40 minutes to play, as Gombau handed Marcelo Carrusca a debut just two days after joining the club from Melbourne City.
The striker trudged up, miffed by the substitution, and was indulged by his boss with an explanation on the sideline.
“What I like about the Riera-Santalab combination is Riera is picking up great little spots between midfield and defence where he can turn, bring players in,” explained legendary A-League striker Thompson explained on Matchday Saturday.
“Santalab is higher, it brings so much more into play.”
His strike broke the deadlock in a first-half that never reached any great heights and saw both sides enjoy ascendancy through different means.
The Nix, with their back five formation, were clearly set to strike on the counter attack, and Roy Krishna forced a sharp save from Vedran Janjetovic on 10 minutes amidst a flurry of half chances from high energy in the middle of the park and an intent to get forward quickly, using the flanks as well.
The goal hurt them, badly.
Lewis Italiano let a Santalab snapshot squeeze underneath him as he skilfully hit the target amidst a crowded box. The keeper should have saved it, and from there, the first-half momentum swung to the away side.
Mark Bridge broke in behind seconds later and should have tested Italiano again, but didn’t hit the target, and Italiano redeemed himself with a sharp, scrambling save to tip over a Rieira looping header, before another stop off a shot from the striker before the interval.
The Nix turned to Nathan Burns, still finding match fitness having returned to the club, at half-time, and enjoyed plenty of territory to start the second-half.
That pressure finally took its toll and in the end, the hosts should have made it back-to-back.
“If you ask my heart, I would let them start every game from the beginning but the reality is something else,” he said.
“Matija played his last game November 22, and Burnsy was also not in a team environment for the last month so we have to be careful with those players. “I have to think from a professional point of view and not take risks with the health of my players.” Despite Wellington’s indifferent start, Kalezic believed his team were unlucky not to grab the win.
“I don’t want to exaggerate but I think there was only one team on the pitch who created the chances.
“In the second half, we were dominant – from the first to the last minute.” However, the Wanderers had dominated possession in the first spell and were more measured in the middle of the park, where former Phoenix midfielder Roly Bonevacia looked well in control.
Raul Llorente’s 28th-minute free-kick set up the Wanderers’ goal, the 31-year- old left back curling a perfectly placed ball into the box.
Wellington’s scrambling defence failed to clear, and Santalab volleyed home for his second goal of the season.
Coach Josep Gombau said lost goal-scoring opportunities in the first 45 minutes had cost his team.
“In the first half, Wellington was very deep and we had control of the ball, and we could have gone ahead at halftime 2-0,” he said.
“In the second half, with some changes that Wellington did, we maybe were not that good and the game was very equal and Wellington had more chances than us.
– with AAP