Wellington Phoenix’s fairy-tale 2018/19 season came to an end on Friday night; the A-League’s side from across the Tasman suffering a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Melbourne Victory in front of 16,010 fans.
Stymieing a bright start by the visitors, Victory took the lead just before the halftime whistle when a lapse in concentration from Andrew Durante enabled Georg Niedermeier to run onto a Keisuke Honda free kick and head home.
Soon after halftime, a sublime through ball from Ola Toivonen to Kosta Barbarouses then allowed Victory’s Kiwi attacker to make it 2-0 in the 53rd minute.
Wellington’s Roy Krishna looked like he had, perhaps, brought his side back into the game when he turned in from close range in the 64th minute, only for ice-cold killer Toivonen to seal the game – and an undisputed man-of-the-match performance – with Victory’s third goal in the 71st minute.
The result means that Victory will next week meet Sydney FC in a Big Blue Semi Final, a year after Terry Antonis conspired a forlorn Sydney FC to the scrap heap with a dramatic late winner to send Victory to the 2017/18 Grand Final.
That the Phoenix’s season has come to an end shouldn’t, on balance, be shameful; as the task ahead of the Kiwis on Friday night was a gargantuan one.
Victory had never a lost a finals match in regular time in their home city, their only defeat coming on penalties in the 2010 Grand Final against Sydney FC at Docklands Stadium.
Conversely, the ‘Nix were searching for their first ever road win in finals competition; their last win of any kind coming over six years ago when they knocked off Sydney FC 3-2 in 2012.
Head Coach Mark Rudan, however, had made clear that he and his squad of overachievers were not going to die wondering against the defending A-League Champions at their home digs of AAMI Park.
That fighting spirit was demonstrated just seconds into the contest when A-League Golden Boot Winner Krishna pulled the trigger from range and forced Victory goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas into a diving save.
The presence of Thomas presented the answer to an intriguing subplot that had developed in the lead into the opening slate of finals games; the 26-year-old hero of the 2017/18 Grand Final seemingly having lost his number one role to understudy Matt Acton during the regular season only to regain the mantle come Friday night.
Responding to the ‘Nix assured start, Victory created their first clear chance of the game three minutes later when Thomas Deng slid a ball down the right wing for marquee man Honda.
Deftly losing Liberato Cacace, the Japanese superstar made his way to the byline before gliding a cross into the penalty area in the direction of Elvis Kamsoba.
Alas for Victory fans, Kamsoba – who appeared somewhat overawed by the stage he found himself upon in the game’s early stages but would grow into the contest – was unable to get a proper connection on the cross as the ‘Nix were able to clear the danger.
Unperturbed, the ‘Nix continued their confident play, going close in the tenth minute when Krishna killed a ball played into the Victory penalty area before laying it off to David Williams.
The resulting shot from the ‘Nix attacker, though, careened into the body of Niedermeier and was cleared; Phoenix’s shouts for a handball waved away by referee Shaun Evans.
That chance was followed in the 20th minute when Krishna, again holding the ball up to facilitate the forward movement of his teammates, laid the ball off for Williams, who in turn laid it off for Ryan Lowry as the ‘Nix worked the ball across the field.
Unfortunately, Lowry couldn’t do anything with his shot, putting it wide of the near post.
Despite their status as favourites heading into the contest, Victory struggled to create consistency going forward in the first half; their best chances often coming as the result of moves in transition after breakdowns in the ‘Nix play.
Making a run into the space that opened up in front of him after picking the ball up in the middle of the park Honda forced a spilled save from Filip Kurto after shooting from just outside the area in the 22nd minute, before Toivonen went on a run of his own after dispossessing Mandi just three minutes later, his effort failing to find the target.
Toivonen attempted to turn provider during another Victory attack in transition in the 40th minute of play, beginning his move forward after collecting a ball lifted over the top of the ‘Nix lines by Antonis.
With a deftness of touch and body control that is difficult to overstate, Toivonen appeared to have an avenue to launch a left-footed effort in on goal but instead opted to square it to Barbarouses on his right; only for the Phoenix defence to pop in and snuff out the danger.
Nonetheless, just three minutes before half time, Victory was able to find a way onto the score sheet.
Winning a free kick after referee Evans, somewhat dubiously, adjudged Williams to have fouled Toivonen on a sliding challenge around 30-yards-out from Victory’s goal; both Barbarouses and Honda stood over the ball – both more than capable of doing damage from set pieces.
Opting to take it, Honda was able to loft a free kick onto the head of a charging Niedermeier, who had completely left his marker Andrew Durante in his wake.
Niedermeier made no mistake with his effort, nodding it past Kurto to make it 1-0.
Moments into the second half, as the rain began to fall, the lethal Toivonen once again caused havoc for the ‘Nix defence as he timed his run perfectly to meet an elevated through ball from Raul Baena.
Taking the ball to the byline, the Swedish striker once again looked to square the ball back to his strike partner Barbarouses; only for the defence to stymie the attempt.
The third time proved the charm for Toivonen, though, with the 32-year-old pouncing on a catastrophic error in possession by Mandi to collect the ball in Phoenix’s half before turning goalward and placing an absolutely gorgeous through ball for Barbarouses to run onto and slide under Kurto to finally make it 2-0 in the 53rd minute.
Starting down a two-goal deficit, Rudan turned to his bench and produced an ace that he had been saving for just an occasion such as the one he found himself.
The introduction of that ace in the form of Sarpreet Singh paid immediate dividends, with the ‘Nix able to move the ball around the wet AAMI Park surface at a much greater rate then they had with the man Singh replaced – Mandi – on the pitch.
It was Singh’s ball in the 64th minute that set Krishna up to make it 2-1, the 20-year-old delicately placing a ball in behind an unaware James Donachie for Krishna to poke home from close range.
Yet, just when it looked like the visitors may be in with a sniff of dragging their way back into the game, Toivonen struck.
Collecting the ball as it returned to the surface just inside the penalty area after Kopczynski had sent an attempted Barbarouses through ball skyward, Toivonen turned towards the byline and, in the face of a charging Kurto, deftly chipped the ball over the ‘Nix keeper to make it 3-1.
Toivonen almost grabbed himself another assist as the game ticked over to injury time, setting up Kambsoba with a ball through the forlorn Nix defence; only for Kurto to produce a fantastic save.
It capped off a second-half performance that demonstrated just how good Toivonen is.
A performance that showed how, when he is on his game, he is the best player in the league.
Melbourne Victory: Thomas (gk), Deng, Broxham, Donachie, Niedermeier, Baena (85′), Honda, Antonis, Kamsoba (Athiu 95′), Toivonen, Barbarouses (Roux 93′)
BENCH | Acton (gk), Roux, Lesiotis, Valeri, Athiu
Wellington Phoenix: Kurto (gk), Kopczynski, Durante, Taylor, Lowry (Elliott 90′), Cacace, Rufer, Mandi (Singh 57’), Burgess, Krishna, Williams (Sheridan 77’)
BENCH | Sail (gk), Elliott, Singh, Stensness, Sheridan