Unique coaching ‘blueprint’ & a pre-season write-off fuelling Wellington’s surge to the top

Watch all the highlights from Wellington's road win over Western United

Wellington Phoenix will end Round 6 on top of the Isuzu UTE A-League table after Ben Old’s late winner settled a 1-0 triumph over Western United at Mars Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Old’s 80th-minute strike broke the deadlock in Ballarat – but the goal was initially flagged as offside before the decision reversal from Video Assistant Referee (VAR) Kris Griffiths-Jones, who adjudged Old as onside upon receiving a ball from Kosta Barbarouses in the box to score.

The 1-0 win ensured the Phoenix remained unbeaten through six games to start the season, with Giancarlo Italiano’s side moving into top spot, while Western slumped to a fifth loss on the bounce to remain planted to the foot of the table.

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A goalless first half was not without its chances as some wayward finishing and smart saves – particularly from Wellington keeper Alex Paulsen – kept the game deadlocked up to half-time.

Ben Garuccio struck a free-kick into Paulsen’s clutches early in the game before a narrow-angled shot from Lachie Wales was pawed over the crossbar by the Phoenix gloveman as Western made all the early running.

A glorious chance presented for Bozhidar Kraev to put the visitors ahead when a sloppy pass across Western’s defensive line dribbled invitingly into his path. Kraev swept his first-time shot toward the bottom-left corner but fluffed his lines, sending the unchallenged attempt off the mark.

As half-time drew near, chances presented down either end as Noah Botic struck the post with a curling strike off his non-favoured left foot, and Kosta Barbarouses headed a cross from Kraev off target under no pressure from the Western defence.

The first half was ignited by a series of rash challenges in midfield, with Western’s Steven Lustica earning a yellow card for repeat challenges before Nicholas Pennington got one back on Lustica with an uncontrolled tackle, catching the Western midfielder late with a reaching slide tackle.

Just seconds into the second half, Wellington should have taken a one-goal lead. Tim Payne’s marauding run down the right wing led to a glorious chance to score, but his rasping strike deflected off the foot of the post, and back into the danger zone.

The ball hit Western keeper Thomas Heward-Belle and dropped into the path of David Ball to strike from inside the six-yard box – but Heward-Belle salvaged the situation with a diving block at the feet of the Wellington forward.

Both teams made sweeping changes at the hour mark. Italiano brought Oskar Zawada off the bench as part of a triple change, marking the star striker’s return from a groin injury, while Western boss John Aloisi called on 21-time Socceroo Nikita Rukavytsya to join the action.

Shortly after Rukavytsya’s introduction, he set Botic up for a glorious chance which was scuffed off the boot, bobbling off target.

But Western refused to let frustration set in as they continued to push for an opener. Paulsen, as he so often has done this season, repeatedly came to the rescue for the ‘Nix, denying Garuccio and Riku Danzaki with a pair of smart saves in a matter of minutes as the game clock ticked toward the 75th-minute mark.

Zawada wasted a big chance on the volley after Sam Sutton’s ambitious early cross was completely misread by Jacob Tratt. It opened the door for Zawada to latch onto a shot from the edge of the area – but the strike was blasted over the bar in a sign of rustiness from the Phoenix striker.

Soon after, the ‘Nix had the ball in the back of the net through Old, whose classy finish into the bottom-left corner was initially ruled out due to an offside call. Both teams looked at peace with the initial decision – but as the two sides set up for a Western free-kick, the resumption of play was delayed by a VAR check.

A check of the offside lines in the aftermath of the decision led to the reversal, with VAR adjudging Tomoki Imai had played Old onside as the ball left the foot of Barbarouses.

Penha led the Western outcry in the aftermath of the decision to award the goal.

Old had the opportunity to put the result to bed shortly after scoring the opener, but fired just wide of the target. Then came a period of sustained late pressure from Western, with Rukavytsya launching a shot just over the crossbar in the best of the late opportunities for the home side.

The talking point

Six games played, four wins, two draws, zero defeats. Ten goals scored, just four conceded, and three clean sheets.

Wellington Phoenix are absolutely flying under new head coach Giancarlo Italiano – and are well-deserved league leaders after Round 6 in the Isuzu UTE A-League season.

Leading into the new campaign, there were doubts over what the ‘Nix could produce. The departure of former head coach Ufuk Talay was a big loss to the New Zealand outfit; in his place came Talay’s assistant Italiano in his first full-time job as a senior first-team coach.

Italiano never played the game professionally, but it’s proved no hindrance to his ability to send the ‘Nix charging up the Isuzu UTE A-League table to claim top spot after six rounds.

Speaking after a 1-0 win over Western United, Italiano said the pre-season scepticism around his side and what they could achieve under his watch has proven a major motivating factor in Wellington’s wonderful start to the new season.

“I always had belief in the group. I didn’t quite envisage the fact we’d be first,” Italiano said.

“I felt after the first two friendlies we had before the season that things were quite promising. And probably an advantage for us was that a lot of people wrote us off, which was a good thing for the team. It gave them fuel to push through this first couple of games.”

Giancarlo Italiano greets the Phoenix fans after victory over Western United.

Conceding just four goals across the first league games, Phoenix have the equal-best defensive record in the Isuzu UTE A-League, along with Western Sydney Wanderers – the team Wellington bumped off the summit of the table on Saturday afternoon.

Italiano has explained the catalyst for Wellington’s defensive solidity, revealing the “blueprint” to their early success has been drawn up to deliberately allow low-percentage opportunities to the opposition.

“If you look at the defending right across the back four and the (number) sixes, they’re very disciplined,” he said.

“If you look at chance creation, even though we do concede quite a number of shots, they’re not clean-cut opportunities, 1v1’s or 2v2’s. They’re half-chances in the box with a lot of numbers behind the ball – and that’s done by design.

“I said a couple of weeks ago my assistant coach (Adam Griffiths) and goalkeeper coach (Ruben Parker) worked a lot on that. I give them the freedom to work their blueprint – and it’s been working.”