Sydney FC has secured a top two berth and a week off in the first round of the finals after a 2-1 victory away to Wellington Phoenix at Westpac Stadium on Sunday night.
First-half goals to Bernie Ibini and Shane Smeltz gave the visitors a 2-0 advantage and despite an early second half goal from Michael Boxall, Sydney FC held on to claim all three points and earn a free pass into the semi-finals.
Phoenix contributed to a willing, high-stakes encounter, but were ultimately unable to secure their highest ever regular season finish, and will now host Melbourne City in an elimination final next Sunday.
0-1 (Bernie Ibini 14') - A lofted Phoenix corner was collected by Sydney goalkeeper Vedran Janjetovic whose quick thinking and massive throw created space for Ibini on the left flank. He beat Albert Riera with pace and then Louis Fenton with skill before driving an unerring finish into the roof of the net.
0-2 (Shane Smeltz 32') - A charging Christopher Naumoff was brought down in the penalty area by Albert Riera and Shane Smeltz stepped up to dispatch the spot-kick to Lewis Italiano’s left. The debutant custodian got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out.
1-2 (Michael Boxall 46') - The Phoenix won a corner and played it short to Burns on the byeline. He shimmied away from a defender and fired a low cross into the area which was drilled in from close range by Michael Boxall.
Inside the first 10 minutes, Michael McGlinchey drove into the penalty area and was upended by Bernie Ibini. Roly Bonevacia stepped up to take the resulting spot-kick, but passed it wide of the left-hand post. It was the Phoenix’s fifth miss from the spot this season and denied them what would have been a crucial early lead.
Opta Data key stats
The Phoenix shaded possession and played 100 more passes than the visitors (at over 80% accuracy) but fashioned only two shots on target.
Sydney FC’s two goals meant they have now out-scored their hosts 32 to 14 across 14 away matches in 2014/15.
After an hour, Senegalese centre-back Jacques Faty carried the ball out of defence and played a sumptuous ball into the path of Alex Brosque who was left one-on-one with Lewis Italiano. In his 150th A-League game, the Sky Blues’ skipper looked odds on to celebrate with a goal before a strong left-arm from the rookie ‘keeper denied him.
The Phoenix spend hours practising short corners and one finally paid off in this game, but Ernie Merrick was left shaking his head in bewilderment as the majority of the Phoenix’s other seven corners were lifted into a crowded penalty area and dealt with comfortably by the Sydney FC defence.
Christopher Naumoff suffered a painful elbow injury in the first half and left the field in a makeshift sling, but coach Graham Arnold is hopeful both he and absent striker Marc Janko (thigh) will be fit for their semi-final in a fortnight.
Back to the drawing board
Ernie Merrick needs more from his front men as the finals approach, with just four goals in their last five outings. Defensively, Westpac Stadium also looks anything but a fortress, with ten goals conceded in their last four matches at home.
The Final Word
Sydney FC completed a quite remarkable away season, winning their eighth straight game on the road, and notching their tenth away victory of the campaign to deservedly earn a spot in the top two.
Even without Golden Boot leader Marc Janko, the visitors were able to create headaches for the Phoenix defence, particularly in the first half when Ibini, Smeltz and Brosque combined to good effect.
Oddly, the loss might have played into the Phoenix’s hands as they’ll now host Melbourne City – who are winless in their last four games – rather than defending champions Brisbane who have won three of their last five matches. The Roar would have been their opposition had the Phoenix found an equaliser in this one.
Wellington Phoenix: Italiano, Boxall, Sigmund, Durante, Muscat, Riera, Lia (Cunningham), Fenton (Rodriguez), Bonevacia, McGlinchey, Burns (Krishna).
Sydney FC: Janjetovic, Grant, Faty, Jurman, Petkovic, Naumoff (Stambolziev), Dimitrijevic, Ibini, Smeltz, Tavares, Brosque (Calver).
Scorers: Wellington: Boxall; Sydney FC: Ibini, Smeltz (pen)
Red cards: n/a
Yellow cards: Wellington: Durante, Muscat, Cunningham, Sigmund; Sydney FC: Brosque, Faty, Tavares, Grant.
Conditions: Overcast, blustery, 17 degrees