Wellington Phoenix claimed their title as the A-League’s bravest side as they shrugged off a season of constant challenge to book their place in the playoffs with a 2-1 away win over Western Sydney Wanderers. A sparkling second-half goal from midfielder Reno Piscopo at Western Sydney Stadium on Thursday secured a place in the final with one game to play while condemning five-time defending champions Sydney FC to miss the qualifiers for the first time since 2015/16.
The league’s only New Zealand side have done it the hard way, playing just two games in their home country this season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. It comes after narrowly missing out on the 2020/21 qualifiers when they were forced to base themselves in Australia through another tax campaign.
“Very happy with the result tonight,” Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay said after the game. “I’m very happy for the group, I’m very happy for my staff and I’m very happy for the club at the same time.
“It’s been a tough two seasons… We’ve had to adapt and we’ve adapted quite well and that’s why I think we’re where we are.” Phoenix’s season appeared in trouble before the first ball was even kicked.
Their best player Ulises Davila moved to Sydney-based Macarthur FC and their captain Steven Taylor left the club and returned to England, citing the strain of COVID hubs and lockdown life in New Zealand. The Phoenix managed just one win in their first six matches and lost substitute captain Alex Rufer in March to a season-ending knee ligament tear.
Injuries and COVID-19 put a number of other players out of action, while the pandemic continued to wreak havoc with the schedule. The playoffs seemed a long way off a month ago as Wellington conceded 11 goals in two games against Melbourne City and the Central Coast Mariners.
But the New Zealanders have bounced back from each setback and won four of their last six games to reach the playoffs. They will push for a top-four berth and a possible home final in their final regular-season game at Melbourne City on Monday, but will need to pull off a massive turnaround after losing 6-0 to the league champions in their last meeting.
Phoenix’s win marked the end of an era for Steve Corica’s Sydney FC, who reached the decisive Championship grand final last year after winning back-to-back titles in 2018/19 and 2019/20.
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