Stoppage-time drama sees Phoenix stun Wanderers

A pair of stoppage-time goals have ensured Wellington Phoenix will sit top of the Isuzu UTE A-League ladder on Christmas after defeating Western Sydney Wanderers 2-0 at Sky Stadium.

In a game which saw the Wanderers create the more dangerous opportunities it was the home side who produced a stunning late show to seal all three points in Wellington, where Kosta Barbarouses broke the deadlock in the 91st minute.

With the Wanderers then throwing everything forward in an attempt to find an equaliser, the ‘Nix hit the visitors on the counter-attack – Barbarouses playing Ben Old through on goal before the midfielder fired his shot low across Lawrence Thomas and into the far corner.

Chances were at a premium in what was a cagey start to the game as the competition’s two best defences probed for any early openings in the Round 9 contest.

The first save made by either keeper came in the 29th minute as the Wanderers forced the home side into a turnover on the edge of their own box but Aidan Simmons’ deflected strike was comfortably saved by Wellington shot-stopper Alex Paulsen.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – DECEMBER 23: Aidan Simmons of the Wanderers on attack during the A-League Men round nine match between Wellington Phoenix and Western Sydney Wanderers at Sky Stadium, on December 23, 2023, in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

But if that save from the ‘Nix goalkeeper was routine his next, to deny Nicolas Milanovic, was outstanding as the away side came closest to breaking the deadlock.

A long ball over the top allowed Dylan Pierias to sprint clear of the Wellington defence before he cut the ball back for the arriving Milanovic but his first time shot was brilliantly saved at the near post by Paulsen, while Pierias’ follow up was then blocked by a sliding Finn Surman to keep the contest goalless.

Straight up the other end, Wellington then thought they’d taken a first-half lead through Barbarouses but his close-range effort was chalked off for deliberate handball after referee Casey Reibelt deemed he’d used his elbow to steer home Old’s diving header.

Before the half was out the pendulum then swung back the other way as Simmons picked out an unmarked Marcus Antonsson arriving late in the box but the Swede could only stab his effort wide of the far post.

The Wanderers again came closest to opening the scoring in the 56th minute as Pierias whipped a dangerous ball across the face of goal but thankfully for the Phoenix defence Milanovic was centimetres away from connecting with a diving header.

Substitute Alexander Badolato then fizzed an effort into the side-netting before firing straight at keeper Paulsen from a similar position in the 81st minute.

Bozhidar Kraev then had the ball in the back of the net in the 85th minute but the Bulgarian had strayed well offside before stabbing home Lukas Kelly-Head’s cross past Wanderers keeper Thomas.

The away side were then inches away from taking a late lead but the lively Badolato saw his dipping shot brilliantly tipped onto the woodwork by Paulsen to deny the Wanderers a deserved lead.

And what a save it would prove to be.

Spotting the run of Barbarouses in behind the Wanderers’ defence, Alex Rufer played an inch-perfect pass into the feet of his teammate who subsequently rounded goalkeeper Thomas before lifting the ball into an empty net to send Sky Stadium into raptures.

The ‘Nix then put the icing on the cake, catching their opponents out on the counter with Barbarouses playing Old in on goal and Wellington’s number eight duly drilled the ball past Thomas to seal a brilliant win.