New Phoenix boss explains how ‘unbelievable’ young keeper edged new signing to become ‘Nix No.1

Western Sydney Wanderers FC v Wellington Phoenix - Highlights | Isuzu UTE A-League 2023-24 | Round 01

Western Sydney Wanderers and Wellington Phoenix have taken a point apiece from their 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League season opener in a 0-0 draw at CommBank Stadium.

The fixture was highlighted by a series of impressive saves by Phoenix keeper Alex Paulsen, who staved off competition from new Wellington signing Jack Duncan in the off-season to start in between the sticks in Round 1 and the 21-year-old did not disappoint new Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano in just his fourth A-Leagues start, with a series of eye-catching saves preserving his clean sheet and a point for the travelling side.

The first half featured a gripping battle between Paulsen and lively Wanderers forward Nicolas Milanovic, who were both heavily involved in the early action. 

The two players faced off in the seventh minute when Milanovic sent a strike on the turn toward the top-right corner of Paulsen’s goal, only for the 21-year-old to leap across and poke the ball around the post for a corner. 

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Paulsen was called into another diving save just beyond the half-hour mark when Milanovic picked out Marcus Antonsson in the six-yard box with a well-weighted cross; Antonsson directed his header down toward the bottom corner but Paulsen got a strong right hand to the ball, falling over his own line but making sure the ball didn’t follow him into the back of the net.

Paulsen’s two big saves were complimented by a contribution down the other end by Wanderers gloveman Lawrence Thomas to ensure the game remained goalless to the break. Nicholas Pennington made a late run from midfield to latch onto a cross from out wide, and his header was on target – but the quick-thinking Thomas sprawled backward to tip the ball over the bar. 

After the break Paulsen continued to excel, with Jack Clisby’s curling attempt from outside the box giving the Phoenix keeper a test he was eager to pass.

Wanderers star Brandon Borrello played from the start despite returning from London and international duty with the Socceroos on Thursday night. The quick turnaround after friendlies against England and New Zealand meant Borrello could only manage an hour in the Wanderers’ season opener before being replaced by Zac Sapsford.

The hosts had their best chance of the second half with just 10 minutes to play when Jorrit Hendrix played a ball from midfield to the back post where Clisby had made a well-timed run; caught between a header on goal and back across the box, Clisby’s first-time contact sent the ball flashing across the face of goal, with not a Wanderer in sight to put a final touch on the well-worked move.

There would be no late chances for either side to snatch all three points, with those first-half saves from Paulsen and Thomas proving the key moments in a game where neither side found the cutting edge to break through.

The star

Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano says Alex Paulsen is relishing a healthy battle with new signing Jack Duncan to become the club’s first-choice keeper in the 2023-24 seaosn.

The 21-year-old was a player possessed in the first half of Sunday’s draw with Western Sydney, depriving both Milanovic and Antonsson near-certain goals with a pair of magnificent saves. Paulsen is an inexperienced keeper at professional level, with just four starts to his name prior to Round 1 in the new campaign.

The arrival of Jack Duncan from Newcastle Jets seemed at the time a logical replacement for New Zealand international Oliver Sail, who departed for Perth Glory. But Paulsen has emerged from pre-season marginally ahead of Duncan in the pecking order; Italiano praised the young shot-stopper for his outstanding display against the Wanderers, crediting a healthy rivalry between the two keepers for his bright start to a new season.

“A.P (Alex Paulson) and Duncs (Duncan) have been very close all pre-season,” Italiano told Paramount+. “A.P got the nod primarily because of his feet and how he builds up – but even in the shot-stopping today he was unbelievable.

“But I’ve said this before: Duncs has been doing just as well as A.P so I feel if Duncs started he would have put the same performance in as well. Credit to A.P, he was outstanding.”

Italiano expanded on the No.1 battle in his post-match press conference: “Both keepers we have are exceptionally talented. I don’t really need to say much to them, because they’ve been fighting out the whole two-and-a-half months for the No.1 spot.

“I just encouraged (Paulsen) and wished him good luck but the rest was up to him. He’s been doing phenomenally well in the last two friendlies and so has Duncs when he’s been playing so I’m really happy in that respect.”

The talking point

When Nicolas Milanovic took aim toward the top-right corner in the seventh minute, he looked near-certain to break the deadlock – if not for Paulsen’s superb save to keep the Wanderers forward at bay.

That was the start of the frustration for the Wanderers in the opening round, who had 16 shots to Wellington’s five but could only direct four on target – and on each occasion, Paulsen was there to quell the danger.

Milanovic looked the brightest spark in attack for the hosts, but was disappointed he couldn’t find the breakthrough; after the Wanderers misfired in Round 1, Milanovic says finding that clinical edge in the final third will make them an “unstoppable” force this season.

“It’s just disappointing we threatened so much at goal and couldn’t find it… we just need to be a bit more deadly,” Milanovic said.

“I think there’s a bit more fire in the belly this year for me. I want to score more important goals for the club. I think it’s such a big club (with) high expectations this year.

“We’ll keep playing our way, we’ll keep being the high-pressing team we are and work on going forward. We just need goals. If we get goals we’re going to be unstoppable this year.”

Nicolas Milanovic.

Post-match, Wanderers boss Marko Rudan was frustrated with his side’s inability to break the Phoenix down.

“I didn’t think we ever looked like losing,” he said. “It was quite a solid play considering the week we had leading into the game, and some outs through the week as well. I thought the boys did exactly what we (were doing) on the training pitch.

“We knew they were going to try and frustrate us, they clearly just game to sit back and play a long ball and try and get us on the counter.

“The game could’ve been different had Milanovic scored early on, that opens the game up, you go up 1-0 and they’ve got to chase the game – but it wasn’t to be. All in all for the first game of the season it was solid – but frustrating.”