Phoenix beat Sydney FC 4-2
Wellington Phoenix have started 2012 in familiar fashion, with a convincing win at home.
Ben Sigmund's thumping 78th minute header from a Leo Bertos corner and an injury time strike to a fit-again Paul Ifill saw the Phoenix beat Sydney FC 4-2 in a highly entertaining match to open the A-League's ''Big Wednesday'' five-game marathon.
The Phoenix came from behind to lead 2-1 at halftime on a superb Wellington afternoon at Westpac Stadium, but despite outmuscling Sydney in midfield and creating twice as many chances, it looked as though they could be forced to split the points after a Bruno Cazzarine equaliser midway through the second stanza.
Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert went in search of a winner with attacking players Paul Ifill, who returned from a groin injury, Mirjan Pavlovic and Alex Smith all coming off the bench, but it was Sigmund who handed his coach - and 8411 fans - a belated Christmas present with the go-ahead goal 12 minutes from time.
Ifill put the icing on the cake in the 95th minute, slamming home from close range to complete a deserved victory.
The three points see Wellington leapfrog Sydney into fourth, on 21 points. They will end the day in that position, irrespective of what transpires in the remaining four matches.
The Phoenix made all the early running but it was the visitors who claimed the initial advantage after a 16th minute penalty to Brett Emerton.
The former Blackburn Rovers midfielder easily converted a spot kick after a blatant handball from Phoenix midfielder Vince Lia, who stuck his right arm into the air and connected with the ball directly from a right-wing Sydney corner.
It came moments after Nix stopper Tony Warner made a brilliant save to deny Mark Bridge, Sydney's first genuinely threatening moment of the first half.
The Phoenix had four shots in the opening 10 minutes and continued to press hard after they went behind, and were rewarded with a penalty of their own after Sydney defender Jamie Coyne handled a Manny Muscat cross while attempting to challenge Tim Brown at the far post.
Daniel stepped up to make it 1-1 after 25 minutes, slotting the penalty past former teammate Liam Reddy who guessed the right way but was powerless to stop the well placed shot.
Interestingly, it was the first time the Phoenix have been awarded a penalty all season.
The penalty box action continued, with Cazzarine beating Warner but not the woodwork as Sydney were denied what looked for all money to be a second, then moments later Reddy thwarted his former team with a high quality double-save, first from Dani Sanchez and then from Brown.
But Reddy had no answer to Sanchez four minutes before the break, when the Spaniard received a neat pass from Daniel, took a touch, then produced a classy chip to beat the advancing goalkeeper and put the hosts up 2-1.
Sydney should have drawn level just before halftime, but the woodwork again saved the Phoenix, first when Muscat mistimed a clearance and hit the crossbar, with Cazzarine also finding the crossbar from the rebound.
The Sydney targetman would not be denied in the 63rd minute, however, squeezing the ball under Warner to draw his team level.
Emerton capitalised on a soft midfield turnover - the Phoenix catching Sydney's disease in that respect - before playing in Cazzarine whose first-time shot looked benign as it headed straight at Warner.
But the keeper got caught off balance and let the ball slip under him when he should have saved it.
Not to worry, though, as in typical fashion Sigmund rose high from a right wing Bertos corner and thundered the match-winning header home.
Sydney threatened a couple of times in the dying stages but couldn't find another equaliser, then Ifill nailed the coffin down with almost the final kick of the match.
The Phoenix have another chance to entrench themselves in the top four with another home match against struggling Perth on Sunday.
Will Burnley retain their EPL status?