Wellington Phoenix locked up the final slot in the Isuzu UTE A-League finals by defeating Western Sydney Wanderers 2-1 at CommBank Stadium on Thursday night.
Reno Piscopo’s second-half strike proved the difference after Sam Sutton and Tomer Hemed exchanged first-half goals, with the win giving the Phoenix an unassailable lead over Sydney FC in the A-League Men table.
Even if the Sky Blues were able to win their two remaining games, they would be unable to close the eight-point gap that now exists between them and the sixth-placed Phoenix.
So dominant for so long, Sydney miss the finals for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
The Phoenix will target a possible fourth-placed finish and home final when they play leaders Melbourne City on Monday, while the Wanderers will end their season against Macarthur FC on Sunday.
Starting brightly, David Ball capitalised on a high turnover by lobbing a cross for Sutton to smash home with a volley just moments into the contest.
The Wanderers should have equalised two minutes later but Keijiro Ogawa hesitated at the crucial moment long enough for the defence to scramble clear.
Yet with their foes sitting back and allowing them the ball, the weight of possession eventually bore fruit for the hosts when Ramy Najjarine found Hemed in the box to spin and fire home.
Though still seeing hardly any of the ball, Phoenix thought they’d taken the lead on either side of the half only for the goals to be ruled out for offside.
Nonetheless, there was no denying Piscopo’s thunderbolt from the top of the box as he broke on the counter in the 65th minute.
Hearts were in Phoenix mouths as Oliver Sail tipped a Jarrod Carluccio shot onto the post in the 83rd and Hemed headed into the post in the 86th but the visitors survived.