A defiant Ernie Merrick repeated his belief that Wellington Phoenix will challenge for the A-League title as his players contemplated a depressing sense on deja vu against the Brisbane Roar at a stifling Suncorp Stadium last night.
While his players were down on themselves after a deflected Luke Brattan drive from distance with three minutes left in regulation provided the competition leaders with a 2-1 victory, the stoic Scot was upbeat as he predicted the team's would meet again in the May 4 grand final.
"We'll meet them in the final and sort it out properly," a bullish Merrick vowed after the Phoenix could not protect a one-goal lead.
That scenario may prove unrealistic but the ninth-placed Phoenix at least produced another resolute performance before the suffering a second agonising loss to Brisbane when at least a point seemed obtainable.
In their mid-October season opener Ivan Franjic found the net following a goal mount scramble in stoppage time at Westpac Stadium - in round 16 a stunning long range strike by midfielder Brattan caused even more angst as the Phoenix's five-match unbeaten run ended in cruel circumstances.
Merrick was reluctant to draw comparisons between those last-gasp defeats to the two-time champions, preferring instead to focus his side's enterprise and resilience until Brisbane's humidity played into the home side's hands.
"The boys are gutted but I was actually very impressed with their performance. They're disappointed, I'm not.
"Brisbane are top of the league by far (eight points) and we took the game right up to them. We hit the post early on (Vince Lia), there were several balls across the six yard box that just needed a tap in.
"When we scored I thought 'this is impressive' but I knew the humidity more than the heat was going to take its toll in the second."
Merrick felt the Phoenix needed to be at least two goals by halftime but instead had to rely on Stein Huysegems - the league's leading scorer with eight - to represent their dominance on the scoreboard.
"The boys were dying at halftime, humidity's the killer but they just gave everything," said Merrick, who also marvelled at the quality of the Roars' equaliser and match-winner via a wicked deflection off Leo Bertos that stranded Glenn Moss.
"It took a really good shot by Luke Brattan to get the win, otherwise I don't think they would have scored," he said.
Wellington's players required cooling and rehydrating during the interval as medical staff worked overtime.
However, it was tactical switch rather than health reasons that All White Bertos made only his seventh appearance of the campaign as the second half got underway.
Bertos replaced 19-year-old Tyler Boyd and adopted the No.10 role in a bid to combine with the midfield more effectively than Huysegems had managed.
"Stein was terrific going forward but he wasn't helping the midfield and we were dying in the heat."
Even so inexperienced defender Michael Boxall had enough determination to set up a potential leveller before his body let him down.
"Right at the end he was right through and only had the goalkeeper to beat and his legs went like jelly and he couldn't get the shot on target," said Merrick, who acknowledged the international commitments of Costa Ricans Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham affected the potency of his side.
However, he also noted the Roar was missing the suspended Berisha plus Matt McKay and Liam Miller and said Brisbane were worthy winners.
"They were the better team but on another day with a full side, maybe without it being so hot maybe it'd be a different game."
Meanwhile, Brisbane coach Mike Mulvey was rapt with his side's response as the club deals with the end-of-season departure of Albanian striker Besart Berisha to the Melbourne Victory.
Mulvey was disappointed news of Berisha's career move broke on Wednesday, but proud of his players determination not to make it a distraction.
"It's been a bit of a circus this week but what you saw out there was a response of a group of players in orange shirts that will make every Brisbane Roar fan proud."
Mulvey added the Phoenix should also be satisfied with their effort despite suffering a third 2-1 loss to Brisbane this season.
"They'll be top four. I don't think anybody will beat them in New Zealand," he said.
"Their players and Ernie have turned it around big time. They'll be a force for the rest of the season, no doubt about it."
Brisbane Roar 2 (Devante Clut 50, Luke Brattan 87)
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Stein Huysegems 36)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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