There is something about Alex Paulsen and penalties after the Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper saved another spot-kick to help his team move to the top of the Isuzu UTE A-League table with a 1-0 win over Melbourne City.
Wellington’s Bozhidar Kraev almost went from hero to villain when he conceded a 72nd-minute penalty – 23 minutes after breaking the deadlock in Auckland on Saturday.
But Paulsen made himself a hero once more. Having kept out an 88th-minute penalty against Perth Glory in Round 2, the 21-year-old sensationally thwarted all-time A-Leagues goalscorer Jamie Maclaren from the spot.
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“Alex Paulsen, build him a statue,” the Sky Sports New Zealand commentators said as Paulsen and his teammates celebrated the saved penalty.
Paulsen’s latest penalty heroics lit up social media post-game.
Unbeaten through five rounds and top of the table, the ‘Nix – without injured talisman Oskar Zawada – snapped their seven-game winless run against City, who are now winless in their last seven league matches away from AAMI Park.
Wellington entered the match on the back of their best-ever unbeaten start to a season amid a run of two wins and two draws to begin 2023-24.
The Phoenix almost broke the deadlock after just two minutes when they exposed City defensively as David Ball – making his 100th A-Leagues appearance – sprung the offside trap and broke through on goal but Jamie Young got down low to deny the English veteran.
Wellington were on the front foot, with City – who had Socceroos pair Maclaren and Aziz Behich in the line-up after their international commitments – getting caught between the lines, though the visitors almost hit the front against the run of play in the 16th minute.
Marin Jakolis sprinted free down the left flank, cut back inside the penalty area and fired a shot at Alex Paulsen, who managed to push away.
There was another let-off for City on the hour-mark. Kosta Barbarouses somehow released Ball en route to goal. The latter waited for his teammate to re-join the attack and cut it back to Barbarouses, however the ball appeared to get caught underneath him as his goal-bound strike was cleared in front of the line.
Hamza Sakhi was denied a Goal-of-the-Season contender by Paulsen four minutes before the interval. The Moroccan – on loan at City from French side Auxerre, unleashed a rocket of a free-kick from long range and it forced a brilliant save from the scrambling ‘Nix keeper.
Wellington got their goal within four minutes of the second half starting – Mohamed Al-Taay released Ball, who squared a pass across the six-yard box for Kraev to convert.
City somehow ended an attack in the 57th minute with the ball incredibly staying out of the net.
Leo Natel’s shot was cleared off the line by Lukas Kelly-Heald, who kicked the ball into Paulsen. The ‘Nix keeper tried to claw it away from goal but he instead almost turned it into his own net but Kelly-Heald was on hand to clear the danger once more in incredible scenes.
City continued to push for an equaliser and they thought they earned a way back into the contest following a swift counter-attacking move that resulted in a penalty with 18 minutes remaining.
Kraev brought down Sahki. However, all-time A-Leagues goalscorer Maclaren was dramatically denied by Paulsen from the spot.
Barbarouses went within a whisker of adding a second for Wellington at the death, though Young tipped the ball over the crossbar.
The Talking Point
Wellington were without Oskar Zawada due to injury. He had scored four goals in four games to start the season.
But no Zawada, no worries for the Phoenix.
Ball came into the line-up and provided plenty of energy. Barbarouses was a threat throughout, while Zraev was at it again.
Kraev scored the winning goal to ensure Wellington beat City in the league for the first time since February 2020.
Step forward Paulsen.
Paulsen has taken the league by storm in the absence of former keeper Oli Sail, who departed for Perth Glory in the off-season.
He has produced a number of eye-catching performances to begin 2023-24. The 21-year-old was the star of the show in round one as he made a number of stellar saves to thwart Western Sydney Wanderers in a 0-0 draw before making a dramatic 88th-minute penalty save to secure a 2-1 win over Perth Glory the following round.
Paulsen was at it again on Saturday. His stunning save kept out Sakhi’s free-kick in the first half before keeping out Maclaren’s spot-kick.
What it means
The Phoenix are flying high with three wins and two draws to begin 2023-24. They are also top of the standings.
Next up for Wellington is a trip to Western United on December 2.
For three-time reigning premiers City, they are ninth with just four points from five games.
City have to navigate an AFC Champions League fixture before visiting Newcastle Jets on December 3.