Back-to-back losses for Phoenix ahead of finals
The Wellington Phoenix will enter the A-League finals with home advantage but lacking momentum after falling 2-1 to minor premiers Central Coast in their regular season finale at Westpac Stadium today.
Goals either side of halftime to strikers John Sutton and Bernie Ibini wrapped up the premiers' plate for the Mariners, while the fourth-placed Phoenix will play Sydney FC in Friday night's elimination final in Wellington.
Back-to-back losses, including a season-worst 3-0 defeat against Melbourne Victory, is obviously not ideal preparation for the club's third consecutive finals campaign.
Wellington's general work around the field was lively against the excellent Mariners, but they are lacking polish in front of goal and a previously watertight defence has sprung a few leaks.
Leo Bertos gave the Mariners a scare with a wonderful long-range free kick in the 80th minute but it proved nothing more than a consolation.
The Phoenix started positively in perfect conditions in front of a crowd of 9802, while the Mariners - in the middle of a hectic schedule - were initially a little sluggish by their own high standards.
There were few chances in the opening half hour until some neat interplay led to Paul Ifill and Chris Greenacre forcing back-to-back saves from Mariners goalkeeper Mathew Ryan.
It was then Mark Paston's turn for some action and the Phoenix custodian showed good awareness to snuff out a shot from Ibini after the pacy striker had streaked clear of Ben Sigmund.
The game had suddenly opened right up and Ryan stuck out a foot to deny Greenacre - who had again linked with Ifill - a minute later.
Manny Muscat's header forced Ryan into more work but the Mariners drew first blood with a wonderful team goal on the halftime whistle.
Ibini switched play to Oliver Bozanic on the edge of the box and the little midfielder floated in a cross for big Englishman Sutton, who got in front of Andrew Durante to easily nod a header past Paston.
In a halftime interview Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert promised the fans he would "roll the dice" and keep attacking in the second half but it was the Mariners who instead seized control with a second goal.
All Whites midfielder Michael McGlinchey made a dynamic run through the heart of the Phoenix defence and threaded a ball through for Ibini to coolly poke past Paston in the 52nd minute.
Shane Smeltz's remarkable four-goal haul last night meant the Phoenix had needed to beat the Mariners by three or more goals to leapfrog Perth into third place.
The All Whites striker scored all of Glory's goals in their 4-2 win over Victory to eclipse Archie Thompson as the league's all-time leading goalscorer.
Despite Smeltz making it a near-impossible task for the Phoenix to claim third, and a better crack at two home finals, Herbert fielded a first-choice XI in captain Durante's 100th match for the club.
Ifill (flu) and Vince Lia (groin) both played the full 90 minutes instead of resting up for Friday while in the only change Bertos was promoted to the midfield in place of the unlucky Alex Smith.
Central Coast coach Graham Arnold also named arguably his strongest side despite the players backing up from Wednesday's 1-1 Asian Champions League draw with Grampus Nagoya.
Wellington's fourth place finish equals the 2009-10 team as the best Phoenix regular season performance in the club's five-year existence.
Whatever happens in the finals it is a commendable achievement given they were unfancied in the pre-season after a low-key recruitment drive and the distractions of an ownership change.
Central Coast Mariners 2 (John Sutton, Bernie Ibini)
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Leo Bertos)