Phoenix's bad day at the office
Perhaps it was the special charity strip, which made the Wellington Phoenix look more like the Chiefs rugby team than a football one.
Perhaps it was over confidence and a touch of complacency, given their status as the league’s form team and Melbourne Heart’s position at the foot of the A-League ladder.
Perhaps it was the absence of Albert Riera, the injured midfielder whose organisation and tough tackling were sorely missed.
Whatever the reason, a season-best Westpac Stadium crowd of 9726 started thinning out in the second half as the hosts were stunned 5-0 by a resurgent Heart.
It was a scarcely believable result and by far the worst in coach Ernie Merrick’s brief tenure, as the visitors hit the Phoenix early and hard and never relented.
Of course it doesn’t suddenly make the Phoenix a bad team – their previous performances this season means this can probably be written off as a bad day at the office.
But it does drop them outside of the all important top-six, and, with eight games to go, Merrick’s first job this week will be healing any mental wounds or wavering belief.
Incredibly, the last time the Phoenix played at Westpac the score was also 5-0.
But that time they were on the right side of the ledger as they ran roughshod over the other Victorian club, Melbourne Victory.
It snapped the Heart’s 22-game winless road streak in the most emphatic fashion and, while David Williams was the hat-trick hero, the catalyst for this unlikely rout was Heart’s marquee man, Orlando Engelaar.
The imposing midfielder has missed most of the campaign after breaking his leg in pre-season.
But he showed why he has played 14 games for the Netherlands, opening the scoring in the ninth minute with a left-footed piledriver from outside of the box.
The ball fell perfectly after Andrew Durante had blocked a shot from Mate Dugandzic and it was as if Engelaar exorcised all of the demons from his injury absence, unleashing a strike of serious venom which gave Glen Moss no chance.
Under reinstated coach John van’t Schip the Heart were already a club on the rise, with 10 points from their previous four games.
The Engelaar strike set them on their way and the 34-year-old then turned provider.
He cleverly took a quick free kick to catch the Phoenix off guard, sending an angled long ball towards the edge of the area and into the path of Williams.
Moss came charging out to try and snuff out the danger but it was a horrible mis-read as an alert Williams lobbed it over the top of the red-faced goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
Two-nil at halftime and Merrick’s reaction was to drag midfielder Jason Hicks for Matthew Ridenton.
So many of Merrick’s punts have come off this season but not this one as Ridenton coughed up possession in a dangerous area upon the resumption.
Williams and Massimo Murdocca engaged in a quicksilver, decisive interplay against a backtracking defence and Williams finished easily for his second.
It was one of those days that everything the Heart tried came off and, sure enough, captain and centre back Rob Wielaert joined the party in the 54th minute.
The Dutchman let rip with a speculator from outside the box, the ball crashing off the crossbar, onto Moss’ back and into the goal.
It summed up the teams’ contrasting fortunes and there was yet more pain for the hosts as Williams – a talented striker who hasn’t yet achieved his potential – completed his hat-trick with a long-range screamer in the 63rd minute.
Most in attendance would have wondered why they weren’t instead at the beach or the Basin Reserve.
But at least one fan was glad he made the effort; Justin Brown snaring $10,000 from sponsor Huawei despite the much sought after 10,000 crowd figure not quite being reached.
AT A GLANCE
Melbourne Heart 5 (David Williams 3, Orlando Engelaar, Glen Moss own goal) Wellington Phoenix 0