INSTANT CLASSIC: Victory end Phoenix fairy tale to reach Grand Final after 120-minute thriller

Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne Victory - Highlights | Isuzu UTE A-League 2023-24 | Semi Final Second Leg

Melbourne Victory are through to the Isuzu UTE A-League Grand Final, having stunned Wellington Phoenix in a 2-1 extra-time win at Sky Stadium on Saturday night. 

The shock Victory win decided a two-legged Semi-Final tie after a goalless draw in the first leg to send the away side through to the 2024 title decider, set to take place against Central Coast Mariners in Gosford on Saturday, May 25.

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Adama Traore’s first A-Leagues goal in more than a decade put Victory on top with less than 10 minutes to play in regular time, and the long-range strike was a beauty. Traore’s opener came after a contentious penalty awarded to Wellington, taken by captain Alex Rufer and saved by Victory keeper Paul Izzo, whose phenomenal individual Finals Series rolled on.

Victory looked set to record a 1-0 win before a dramatic 99th-minute equaliser scored by Phoenix substitute Oskar Zawada, which forced another 30 minutes of play in front of a record crowd of 33,297 fans at Sky Stadium.

In the first half of extra time, Victory reclaimed the lead. Jake Brimmer’s corner delivery created the chance for Chris Ikonomidis to snatch the winning goal; he ghosted in at the far post to turn Roderick Miranda’s flick-on header over the line.

Victory held on to book their Grand Final ticket, ending the Phoenix’s fairy tale season in heart-breaking fashion over 120 minutes.

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Izzo was once again a heroic figure for Victory as the goalkeeper’s dream Finals Series rolled on in Wellington. His penalty save at 0-0 was pivotal but after the seesawing action that followed, Izzo cut a relieved figure after the full-time whistle as he attempted to comprehend what his side had just achieved in Wellington.

“It’s unbelievable,” Izzo told Paramount+.

“Typical of us to do it like that: concede a goal in the (99th) minute… but look, to come here against 30,000 Phoenix fans – (and) credit to them, they made it an unbelievable night – but tonight was our night and the boys, they killed themselves out there. All the noise was against us, but the boys, we all use it as fuel – and here we are. 

“Everyone expected us to roll over tonight, it’s a fantastic story that could’ve been for the Phoenix but unfortunately, you know, Melbourne boys did it again.

“We go into next week exactly the same. Whoever it is… we go there with confidence and look to do the exact same thing.”

Phoenix striker Kosta Barbarouses had the first chance of the night and the close-range attempt, denied by Paul Izzo, led to penalty claims from the home side.

Victory centre-back Roderick Miranda put his arms around Barbarouses and shifted the Phoenix striker’s balance as he attempted to beat Izzo; Barbarouses pleaded for a penalty but VAR did not intervene as play continued at Sky Stadium.

Action sprung from end to end just beyond the 15-minute mark as Daniel Arzani threatened down one end, and Ben Old the other.

Arzani had his shot on target blocked by Phoenix defender Finn Surman, and from the resulting counter attack Old cut past Jason Geria but could only rattle the side netting from a tight angle.

Surman came to Wellington’s rescue once again as Victory began to dominate possession in attacking territory. This time, Arzani popped up on the right side of the box but was thwarted once again by the desperate ‘Nix centre back.

Arzani was Victory’s key contributor in attack throughout the first half and had one last chance to break the deadlock, but fired just past the top-right corner from outside the box.

Old posed a threat late in the half and he should have done better with a free header which didn’t trouble Izzo in a one-on-one.

After a quiet start to proceedings, Nishan Velupillay burst into action just minutes into the second half but his first chance of the night was blocked once again by Surman.

Then came the biggest chance of the night so far, and arguably the tie – and it fell to Bozhidar Kraev in the Phoenix six-yard box.

Old was once again Wellington’s prime creator; his floated cross to the back post was met by Kraev who rose above Adama Traore and headed toward an unguarded net. Victory keeper Izzo was beaten by the flight of the delivery and all Kraev needed to do was guide his header on target – but he couldn’t hit the mark in a big let-off for Victory.

Just before the hour mark, referee Daniel Elder was ushered over the the pitchside monitor by VAR to assess a potential handball in the box from Arzani when blocking a Tim Payne cross into the penalty area.

Payne’s cross first struck the thigh of Arzani, then chest before his outstretched right arm.

Elder returned to the pitch to award the penalty to the hosts, and the decision was contentious.

A statement from Football Australia explained: “After an on-field review, the defender’s arm was extended above the body, making him unnaturally bigger. The ball hits the arm after deflection of the body with the ball travelling in the same direction. These factors make it a punishable handball offence.”

There was confusion among the Victory players, and devastation painted on the face of Arzani – but Izzo came to the rescue to keep his side in the Semi-Final.

Phoenix captain Alex Rufer took the spot kick, aiming towards the bottom-left corner – but Izzo guessed correctly, and leapt to his right to parry the ball off target and got back to his feet to parry away the resulting shot on the rebound.

Having survived the penalty threat, Victory should’ve gone on to take a 1-0 lead but Bruno Fornaroli couldn’t finish a glorious attacking opportunity.

Victory substitute Ben Folami put the ball on a plate for his side’s leading scorer this season, but Fornaroli’s first-time effort from the six-yard line invited Alex Paulsen to make the save.

With 15 minutes to play, Old rattled the woodwork with a venomous strike at the end of a darting run past Victory bodies into space in the penalty area.

It looked like ‘Nix would eventually be left to rue waste chances as Traore broke the deadlock with a long-range stunner.

The full-back hadn’t scored in the Isuzu UTE A-League in more than a decade – but his Semi-Final scorcher was well worth the wait.

Jake Brimmer provided the assist, sliding the ball into Traore’s path on the edge of the penalty area. Traore cut across the ball and squeezed it through Phoenix bodies to find the top-right corner and silence the packed crowd at Sky Stadium.

The moment of class looked to be the difference but with 99 minutes on the clock, just seconds away from the final whistle, Wellington found the most dramatic of equalisers to force 30 minutes of extra time.

The equaliser came via an ambitious long ball from Sam Sutton. Oskar van Hattum flicked the ball on for Barbarouses and Zawada to chase – and the former picked out the latter amid Victory bodies to finish past Izzo and send the majority of 33,297 fans in the house into ecstacy.

Zawada’s equaliser kept Phoenix alive but Victory regained control in the first half of additional extra-time.

Wellington’s typically resolute defence came unstuck when Jake Brimmer’s corner delivery led to a flick-on header from Miranda to the back post. Ikonomidis timed his run to perfection to meet the ball in space and divert it over the line to give the visitors a 2-1 lead.

The hosts had two big chances to get back on level terms before half-time in extra time but neither Youstin Salas or Zawada could capitalise as Victory clung onto their slender advantage.

Victory continued to hold firm in the second half of extra time, and almost came undone in the dying stages of the additional 30 minutes when Old lashed a volley from outside the box just off target.

It proved Wellington’s last big chance of the game as the final whistle blew to confirm Melbourne Victory as shock Grand Finalists.