It wasn’t the early Christmas present the Wellington Phoenix hoped for, but Friday night’s 1-1 draw with the Queensland Roar at least sparked some festive cheer.
The Phoenix had two milestones in mind at Westpac Stadium in Wellington – the first a win against the high-flying Roar and the second to have the 100,000th fan pass through the turnstiles in the club’s inaugural season in the Hyundai A-League.
The latter came as a crowd of 9384 turned out in warm, balmy conditions to take the club’s season total to date to 102,545 with one home game left, but the win proved elusive despite the Phoenix’s almost total domination of the match.
Stung by a goal in just the 5th minute by the Roar’s Reinaldo, the Phoenix stepped up a gear and struck back in the 25th with a wonderful strike by goal-scoring machine Shane Smeltz. The Phoenix and All Whites marksman pounced on a mistake by Roar skipper Craig Moore to burst into space on goal. Smeltz’s finish was top-shelf – his shot on a tight angle flying past Sasa Ognenovski and leaving keeper Liam Reddy with no chance as the ball rifled into the top of the net.
Smeltz’s eighth goal of the season sees him leading the race for the Hyundai A-League’s golden boot award.
But despite sustained pressure throughout the match after a slow start, the Phoenix were unable to put the Roar away and achieve back-to-back wins for the first time this season after smashing Perth Glory 3-0 at home the previous weekend.
While Roar coach Frank Farina was clearly relieved to have escaped Westpac Stadium with a point, the Phoenix could feel a little aggrieved not to have snared all three on offer, having failed to finish several good scoring chances in both halves. And luck again deserted the Phoenix, who should have been awarded a penalty in the 15th minute when Queensland defender Stuart McLaren clearly handled the ball inside the box.
However, coach Ricki Herbert still had a smile on his face as his men secured the point to keep their flickering top-four playoff hopes alive.
“I thought the guys were great,” he said. “Again it reiterates what we’ve been saying for a long time – this football club is evolving. We’ve got a decent side and fantastic fans. It would’ve been nice to have won but it’s certainly not going to dampen our spirits heading into the Christmas break.
“We had the chances against a side that’s right up there with the best and it really was one-way in the second half, that’s for sure. They never threatened in the second half and there was only one team that was going to win it. But sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t.”
Herbert was happy his team was hitting good, consistent form at the business end of the competition.
“We’re playing well, we’ve got a decent squad and things are still coming together – we’re making the right progress. I can’t speak highly enough of the players. It’s kind of easy to give up at the end of the year when you’re in a certain position but these guys don’t. We’ve got four games left and if we can get 12 points that’s what we’re all about, that’s what this club is about. We’ll be giving it everything possible, we’re capable of beating any team in this league at home or away.”
Evergreen striker Vaughan Coveny, again wearing the captain’s armband, echoed Herbert’s assessment of the Phoenix’s progress.
“Two weeks in a row now we’ve really come out and really shown the league that we’re a formidable side that can compete with the best of them. It’s really encouraging from a players’ point of view.
“Now we really want to push on, we don’t want the season to end. We’ve still got a chance [of making the top four]. We didn’t lose, we got a point and we’re still in the mix.”
The Phoenix’s next match is against the Newcastle Jets in Newcastle on December 30 before they return home for their final match at Westpac Stadium against Sydney FC at 7.30pm on January 4.
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Shane Smeltz 25’)
Queensland Roar 1 (Reinaldo 5’)
Crowd: 9384 at Westpac Stadium in Wellington