Wellington Phoenix have secured the final spot in the A-League Men (ALM) Finals by defeating Western Sydney Wanderers 2-1.
- Sydney FC can no longer be in the ALM top six after Wellington’s 2-1 win over the Wanderers
- It is the first time the five-time champions have finished lower than second since the 2015-16 season.
- Melbourne City lost 2-0 to bottom-placed Perth on Wednesday, opening the door for either Victory or Western to potentially claim the ALM Premier League.
Reno Piscopo’s second-half goal made the difference on Thursday night after Sam Sutton and Tomer Hemed traded first-half goals, the win giving the New Zealand side an unquestioned lead over Sydney FC in the ALM table. .
Even if the Sky Blues win their remaining two games, they won’t be able to close the eight-point gap that now exists between them and sixth-place Phoenix.
After being so dominant for so long, the five-time ALM champions will miss the finals for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
They hadn’t finished lower than second since that disappointing campaign.
Forced to settle in New South Wales for nearly all of the last two seasons due to COVID-19 international travel restrictions, Phoenix missed the finals by a single point last campaign but have done better this time.
“I’m glad we did it alone, to win the match tonight and not depend on other results to go our way,” said coach Ufuk Talay.
“We have worked hard to get to this point.
“We took a lot of lessons from last season: the things we could control, what we could do this season.
I am very proud of the group, the squad, the club and what they have achieved.”
Phoenix will be aiming for a possible fourth-place finish and a home final when they play Melbourne City on Monday, though walking-injured attacker David Ball is likely to rest.
“If you need a few more days to be ready for the football finals, we will give you a few more days,” Talay said.
With Sutton’s volley goal and Hemed’s spin-and-shoot effort canceling each other out, it looked like the final race would remain open at the halftime break.
However, with his team playing on the counterattack – Phoenix ended the game with just 28 per cent possession – Piscopo’s lightning strike from the top of the area in the 65th minute proved decisive.
Hearts were in the visitors’ mouths when Oliver Sail finished Jarrod Carluccio’s shot off the post in the 83rd and Hemed headed the post in the 86th, but they survived.
“Luck was not on our side. And in sports, you need a little luck,” Wanderers coach Mark Rudan said.
“It’s not that we didn’t try. We received shots on goal and we had the ball. They played counterattack.
“And it took a world-class goal from Piscopo to do it.”
Meanwhile, reigning Premiers Melbourne City squandered their chance to secure back-to-back titles after a shock 2-0 loss to bottom-placed Perth Glory on Wednesday.
The defeat opens the door for either Melbourne Victory or Western United to potentially claim the Premiership with one round remaining.