Any prospects of the Wellington Phoenix celebrating Christmas early were dashed against reigning A-League champions Central Coast last night as defensive deficiencies and more blunders in front of goal gift-wrapped a 1-0 victory for the Mariners at North Sydney Oval.
This postponed fixture from round six - due to the All Whites forlorn World Cup qualifying campaign against Mexico - further delayed coach Ernie Merrick savouring his first win as Ricki Herbert's successor as last season's wooden spooners winless streak extends to 11 games.
Starved of success since the penultimate round of the 2012-13 regular season in March, the Phoenix now face an unpalatable match-up with third-placed Sydney FC at Westpac Stadium on Sunday, their last attempt to provide a dwindling fan base with festive cheer.
Wellington, who only remain clear of bottom-placed Melbourne Heart on goal difference, might have taken solace from the Mariners copping a 4-0 thumping by Adelaide last weekend but the perennial title contenders somehow rebounded to improve to fourth despite being outplayed for the majority of the clash.
The Phoenix were left to rue the concession of a sloppy goal a botched penalty and a catalogue of missed chances, indiscretions sure to try the patience of the jovial Scotsman as Merrick witnessed another industrious effort count for nought.
Stein Huysegems was the prime culprit when the Belgian striker's 52nd minute spot kick was parried by Liam Reddy, who guessed correctly but still effected one of his easiest penalty saves after new All Whites defender Storm Roux clipped Manny Muscat as he pursued a through ball.
Reddy's counterpart Glen Moss at least spared the Phoenix further embarrassment when he blocked a Marcos Flores shot before conjuring up a contender for save of the season by miraculously flicking Nick Fitzgerald's volley over the bar five minutes after Huysegems blunder.
Moss was excellent throughout but his efforts were in vain as Kenny Cunningham, inevitably Huysegems, Paul Ifill and then the luckless Jeremy Brockie all fluffed gilt-edged opportunities to nail a deserved equaliser as the Mariners lapsed into damage control in the dying minutes.
Cunningham could not connect in front of an open goal after Reddy pushed an Ifill shot into his path; substitute Ifill was denied by Reddy and then the veteran's cross eluded the keeper only for a sliding Brockie to deflect the ball over the bar from five yards - a miss reminiscent of his calamitous finish in the 2-1 loss to Brisbane last weekend.
Both sides suffered setbacks before kick-off - Wellington's star playmaker Carlos Hernandez was ruled out with a recurring thigh injury and left Sydney yesterday morning as Jason Hicks travelled in the opposite direction.
Merrick said he opted not to risk Hernandez looking ahead to the Sydney FC game believing the Costa Rican could not manage two games in four days although there were also suggestions on TV3 that the key import returned home following a disagreement over travel arrangements for his family.
The Mariners also lost Japan-bound All Whites midfielder Mike McGlinchey to a foot injury.
The unfortunate Huysegems gave an early insight into his night in the 11th minute when he ventured into the box only for former Phoenix goalkeeper Reddy to block the ball with relative ease.
Reddy also prevented Brockie making amends for his dreadful miss against Brisbane a first time with an acrobatic save to thwart a goal-bound free kick while the Phoenix were unlucky from the resulting corner when Ben Sigmund's header was cleared off the line by Roux.
The South African-born Kiwi then tormented his more experienced international teammate in the 27th minute when he swooped on a Mile Sterjovski cross that Sigmund made a hash of clearing.
A luckless Phoenix's first half frustrations were encapsulated five minutes from the break when a concerted build-up to the edge of the box culminated in Vince Lia blasting just over the bar from 25 yards.
Central Coast Mariners 1 (Storm Roux 27), Wellington Phoenix 0. Halftime: 1-0
- The Dominion Post
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