Phoenix down Adelaide United at Eden Park
The Costa Rican connection of Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham fired the Wellington Phoenix to a vital 2-1 win over Adelaide United tonight - keeping hopes of a dramatic playoff push on track.
Both missing from last week's 2-1 defeat away to Brisbane Roar, the South American pair returned for the Phoenix's annual game at Eden Park and with each notching their fourth goals of the season, helped the Phoenix roll the A-League's sixth-placed side.
The result atones for last week's unfortunate loss in Brisbane, in what was one of the Phoenix's most enterprising performances, and continues a steady flow of momentum behind Ernie Merrick's new-look Wellington regime.
Merrick's side have now won five of their last seven matches and, after a first half of the season which saw them fail to find a win in their first 10 games, the Phoenix are now one of the A-League's in-form sides. They are now gunning at a legitimate attempt to go from bottom of the table to having a shot at a post-season playoff place.
In front of a solid Auckland crowd of 18,056 which will guarantee the club's return to Eden Park, both Wellington goals came in the first half which could easily have seen the Phoenix 4-0 up at the break
Stein Huysegems, who passed a late fitness test after struggling midweek with a calf injury, should have scored a one-on-one in the 19th minute, but his shot was saved by Eugene Galekovic.
The breakthrough came in the 21st minute when Hernandez was awarded penalty after he was clumsily barged over in the box by Daniel Bowles.
Stepping up to the plate himself, Hernandez pinged a well dispatched spot-kick powerfully inside Galekovic's right post.
It seemed to rock Adelaide - the team with the best first half goal difference in the league but the worst second half one. By the half-hour mark the Phoenix were easily the better side but lacked a second goal to make their pressure count.
Huysegems should have scored again on 32 minutes, but missed twice in bizarre fashion.
Beating the Adelaide defence to find a goal-side position and latch on to a cross, Huysegems hit the near post from close range, fell, and when the ball rebounded back to him, shot again while on the ground and hit the bar.
But two minutes before half time the Phoenix did double their lead, with Hernandez and Cunningham linking brilliantly.
The diminutive Hernandez, who was put under significant physical pressure throughout the game, shrugged the challenge of Osama Malik in the middle of the park, turned, and released Cunningham with a well disguised through-ball off the outside of his boot.
Chasing down the left channel, Cunnigham cut inside Bowles, who was by that stage having a wretched night, and shot low to the far post past Galekovic.
Adelaide did pull a goal back at the death with Awer Mabil's effort but the Phoenix saw out the tie.
Along with patches of loose passing, about the only downside for Merrick will be a defensive conundrum he now has to fix on the road against the Newcastle Jets next Sunday after Michael Boxall collected his fifth yellow card of the season and a one-match ban.
Cunnigham also picked up his fifth yellow card of the season and will miss the next game.
Success over the Jets would give the Phoenix's playoff campaign another significant shot in the arm - and put a handy dent in the hopes of one of their closest rivals.
Wellington Phoenix 2 (Carlos Hernandez 22m pen, Kenny Cunningham 44m) Adelaide United 1 (Awer Mabil 90+3m) at Eden Park. Crowd: 18,056. Referee: Peter Green