Wellington Phoenix coach Giancarlo Italiano is still confident about the A-League play-off chances

Kosta Barbarouses celebrates with David Ball after scoring against Newcastle. Photo / Photo sports

If the Wellington Phoenix miss out on the A-League Premiers Plate, they will face two end-of-season upsets in northern New South Wales.

They led the league for most of the season, including twelve rounds between mid-January and late March, and at one point had a significant cushion at the top.

But that has evaporated in the past two weeks, allowing the Central Coast Mariners to take the initiative.

It started with the 2-1 defeat to the Mariners in Gosford a fortnight ago, when the defending A-League champions grabbed a 91st-minute winner.

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And the regional misery continued on Friday evening, with the Phoenix suffering a frustrating 1-1 draw against 10th-placed Newcastle.

Once again there was late drama. The Phoenix were awarded a penalty in stoppage time, but captain Alex Rufer was unable to take advantage and placed his penalty against the outside of the right post in the 96th minute.

The result feels crucial. The Phoenix are on 50 points, one ahead of the Mariners, but the Australian team still has a game in hand. The Phoenix close their season in the capital against fifth-placed Macarthur next Saturday, while the Mariners travel across town to play the Jets before their catch-up game at home to eighth-placed Adelaide.

Much is at stake. Not only would the Premiers Plate be the first trophy in the club’s history, but it would also mean an A-League grand final in the capital, should the Phoenix make it that far.

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“I would have been happier if we had won the game. It would have put pressure on the Mariners to at least improve on that,” coach Giancarlo Italiano said after Friday’s draw. “But it doesn’t always go according to the script.

“But if we can go home and get a result, that puts pressure on Mariners to at least win both games, or win one and draw one.”

Although the focus will be on Rufer’s penalty miss, which was a fatal blow, the Phoenix had numerous previous chances to secure the victory.

After falling behind in the 15th minute when goalkeeper Alex Paulsen was unable to deal with a Newcastle cross, the Phoenix dominated, especially in the second half. Kosta Barbarouses scored the equalizer in the 71st minute, while Newcastle keeper Ryan Scott enjoyed a challenging evening in goal.

“The intention was fantastic in the second half and it was probably the best football we have played in a long time,” Italiano said. “We created a lot of chances. Sometimes the football gods smile on you, sometimes not. It feels like if you played that game more than 10 times, we probably would have won that game 5 or 6-1.

But Italiano is still optimistic and thinks the Phoenix can make an impact in the playoffs, where they face a home-and-away semifinal against an elimination final winner.

“I think we’re going to turn heads,” Italiano said. “This is the highest number of points the club has ever achieved (the previous record was 46 in 2014/15), the highest position they have ever had, the lowest number of losses in a season, so it all bodes well for a successful campaign. .

“But semi-finals are completely different from a normal season match; the season rewards the best team and the final rewards the team that can play with the most pressure.”

Michael Burgess has been a sports journalist since 2005, winning several national awards and covering the Olympic Games, FIFA World Cups and America’s Cup campaigns. As a football fan, Burgess will never forget the noise that greeted Rory Fallon’s goal against Bahrain in Wellington in 2009.