The Wellington Phoenix's finals hopes took another hit tonight as they slumped to a third straight A-League loss, 2-0, against Western Sydney.
The Phoenix actually dominated the first half but were made to pay for two costly defensive errors in the second half at Westpac Stadium.
Hirsute centre back Nikolai Topor-Stanley was an unlikely goal-scorer with a 72nd minute header before striker Labinot Haliti capitalised on a Phoenix howler 10 minutes later to seal all three points.
The game followed a similar pattern to the previous loss against Melbourne Victory as the ninth-placed Phoenix played nice football in the first half but failed to get any reward.
The Wanderers were lethargic in the first half but coach Tony Popovic made a good tactical adjustment at the break.
Suddenly the visitors pressed high defensively and the Phoenix back four - still learning how to play the ball out - began to make some errors.
First, the Phoenix were again punished for not marking tightly enough.
Topor-Stanley got in front of Ben Sigmund to meet an Aaron Mooy cross with an excellent, low header.
If the crowd of 6608 were stung by that, they were dismayed by the Wanderers' second.
Mark Bridge sent in a cross from the left wing which should have been dealt with easily but Sigmund and Mark Paston made a meal of it.
Sigmund held off dealing with the danger as he expected his goalkeeper to collect the ball but it never happened.
Instead, Haliti nipped in for an easy tap-in as the impressive competition rookies tightened their hold on fourth place.
The Phoenix will now finish round 16 in last place if Sydney FC beat Melbourne Heart later tonight.
The Phoenix dominated a scoreless first half as they stayed true to their word in blustery conditions and kept the ball on the deck at all costs.
Ante Covic was by far the busier of the two keepers and he had his crossbar to thank for stopping a Stein Huysegems thunderbolt in the 23rd minute.
Huysegems was much more involved than he has been in recent matches as he tucked in behind striker Jeremy Brockie.
The former Belgium international had two other good chances in the first half but one was snuffed out by Covic and he put a header wide.
Louis Fenton, Vince Lia and Dani Sanchez, playing effectively as a deep-lying playmaker, were others to test the reflexes of Covic, who had been flummoxed by the wind in his last visit to Wellington.
The Wanderers surprisingly started with marquee man Shinji Ono on the bench, and they only really tested the Phoenix on the counter in the first half - aside from a shaky Sigmund back pass.
Next up for the Phoenix is a visit to Sydney on Saturday in what will be a real dance of the desperates.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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