Melbourne City kicked off the 2023-24 Liberty A-League season with a 1-0 win away to Wellington Phoenix on Sunday.
Hannah Wilkinson was the hero in Wellington, where the New Zealand international star broke the Phoenix’s stubborn resistance with 17 minutes remaining at Sky Stadium.
After ‘Nix goalkeeper Rylee Foster spilled a shot, City’s all-time leading women’s goalscorer reacted quickest to ensure the title hopefuls started the season on a winning note.
Wellington was blowing a gale in tough conditions for both sides as a quartet of players who featured at the FIFA Women’s World Cup were honoured pre-game – Phoenix pair Annalie Longo and Michaela Foster, as well as City duo Wilkinson and Rebekah Stott and their Canadian goalkeeper Lysianne Proulx.
With a new coach (Paul Temple) and four new foreigners after Football Australia (FA) relaxed restrictions on foreign A-League Women signings, the Phoenix absorbed pressure from the visitors who controlled the opening half.
Playing her first game since October 14, 2021, Foster thwarted Kaitlyn Torpey and Holly McNamara in an impressive start to life in Wellington.
The Phoenix – without new captain and signing Longo due to a late injury – applied sustained pressure early in the second half.
It almost resulted in the game’s opening goal, but Hailey Davidson was sensationally denied by City goalkeeper Proulx six minutes into the second half.
City did manage to weather the storm and McNamara nearly broke the deadlock, though her curling effort sailed just wide of the post.
Wilkinson wasted a glorious chance to give the visiting team a 63rd-minute lead after she got in behind Wellington’s defence, rounded Foster and somehow sent her effort wide of an empty goal.
At the other end, a spectacular attack almost gave the Phoenix a lead, however, Mariana Speckmaier powerful half-volley agonisingly over the crossbar.
Wilkinson did get her goal in the 73rd minute after Foster could only parry a save into the path of the Football Ferns striker, and she made no mistake.
The talking point
Rylee Foster was the feel-good story of the off-season following her move to Wellington Phoenix, having been told she would never play football again after a horrific car accident in 2021.
The Canadian goalkeeper was thrown some 30metres from a car as it spun and jack-knifed on an icy road. She was left with seven neck fractures and bleeding on the brain after flying through a windscreen.
But after two years and 731 days, Foster returned to a football pitch in a heart-warming moment on Sunday.
She looked confident and composed in between the sticks for the ‘Nix, making a number of impressive saves.
Wellington made life difficult for City and when the four-time A-League Women champions needed a goal, their star striker produced the goods.
Having threatened earlier in the second half, Wilkinson did not need a second invitation to find the back of the net and her one moment settled the contest.
The 31-year-old, who signed a new contract in the off-season, has scored four goals in her past four league games, dating back to last season.
In total, she has scored 21 goals in a City shirt since arriving in 2021.
What it means
City have now won all three games against the Phoenix in A-League Women as the Melbourne club celebrated just their second win in nine league matches.
Dario Vidosic’s team will now turn their attention to next week’s visit of Canberra United on Saturday, October 21.
While Wellington lost, there were encouraging signs.
In their two previous defeats to City, they lost 4-0 and 4-1 so clear improvement has been made.
They will now look ahead to a trip to Western Sydney Wanderers on Sunday, October 22.