City hits Phoenix-shaped speedbump on way to maiden A-League Premiership

Melbourne City’s path to a maiden A-League title has hit a speedbump after the runaway league leaders were held to a 2-2 draw with Wellington Phoenix at AAMI Park. 

Storming back from a 1-0 deficit to lead 2-1 after a bevy of second-half substitutions restored them to something more properly resembling full-strength, City appeared to be home and hosed with five minutes of regulation remaining, only for Wellington’s Tomer Hemed to pop up and secure his side a valuable point in the 87th minute.

A former Israeli international, the 34-year-old then produced a kippah from beneath his jersey, donned it and then put a hand across his face in an apparent gesture of prayer – earning himself a yellow card for producing the head covering.

FIFA rules dictate that “a player must be cautioned, even if the goal is disallowed” for “covering the head or face with a mask or other similar item”. The A-League’s independent match review panel will review the incident, as they do every card awarded in the competition.

“I din’t see it, I was celebrating at the time,” said Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay said post-game.

“It’s hard for me to comment on at the end of the day. I’m sure we’ll look at it as a club and the federation will look at it as well. At the end of the day I can’t control once the players are on the field what they do.”

The draw means that City missed an opportunity to go 11 points clear atop the A-League table, with the side from Bundoora now having to settle for a nine-point lead over second-placed Central Coast Mariners. However, Brisbane Roar’s loss to Adelaide United on Sunday means they can still mathematically secure the Premiers’ Plate in front of their home fans when the afformentioned Mariners visit next Saturday.

For the Phoenix, they ensure that they stay in touch with the top-six ahead of their return to New Zealand to take on Western United, four points back of Brisbane Roar. 

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Sunday’s fixture coming just three days after his side downed Adelaide United 4-1, coach Patrick Kisnorbo made six changes for the Kiwi side’s visit: captain Scott Jamieson, and attackers Craig Noone and Jamie Maclaren all moved to the bench. 

Also absent was Socceroos’ attacker Andrew Nabbout, who tore his adductor in that win over the Reds. 

And the absence of their first-choice attacking lineup was clearly evident in the first half, as the enforced change in system that resulted – City playing an almost strikerless look in the absence of Maclaren – and collection of young and fringe players that were fielded struggled to get anything going on the offensive. 

“I don’t regret anything,” Kisnorbo said post-game.

“We had a short turnaround – there were some players that needed to be rested.”

Their best chances of the opening half were, at best, chances of the half variety: Marco Tilio lashing an effort high and wide in the 28th minute and Connor Metcalfe springing Scott Galloway into space to send in a cross that Adrian Luna headed over the bar. 

That’s not to take anything away from the visitors, however, who despite making four changes and going without star attacker Ulises Dávila were good value for their first-half lead. 

Forcing a turnover off Ben Garrucio in the tenth minute, Cameron Devlin flashed early warning signs when he fired wide, and Reno Piscopo had a shot cleared off the line by Galloway in the 32nd minute. 

Five minutes after that they had the lead when a lazy challenge from Garrucio needlessly brought down Louis Fenton on the edge of the City penalty area, allowing Tomor Hemed to step and score his third penalty of the season.

“He’s a different player for us. He gives us that presence up top that we need,” Talay said of Hemed.

“He scored from the penalty and I thought the second goal was a good goal as well. He’s an important player for us, especially tonight when we were missing two very important players. It’s great that he stepped up.” 

The Phoenix may very well have had a second just two minus later had David Ball been able to direct a driven shot at either side of Tom Glover. 

Another golden chance arrived for the visitors arrived six minutes into the second half when a long ball forward in transition found Ben Waine, who promptly skipped around an advancing Glover before having his angled shot cleared off the line by Rostyn Griffiths. 

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But it was a fleeting moment of early second-half attacking promise from Talay’s side, as a series of changes from his opposite number Kisnorbo served to swing the game in his side’s favour, especially the introduction of Craig Noone on the left flank. 

Momentum seized from their foes, they proceedings level in the 58th minute when a poor pass from Devlin enabled Tilio to pick the pocket of Josh Laws, advance into the penalty area and lay in a cross that Naoki Tsubaki bundled home. 

Chances to Metcalfe and second-half substitute Craig Noone followed, with the ‘Nix going close through Piscopo.

But eventually, who else but Jamie Maclaren, who replaced Tsubaki soon after his goal, struck with a picture-perfect free-kick in the 80th minute to give his side the lead after after Piscopo brought down a fast-breaking Luna. It was the spearhead’s 25th goal of the campaign – just two behind Bobo’s single-season record.

But with just over two minutes of regulation remaining, the Nix seized on an attempt to Metcalfe to clear the ball and worked it to Ball.

The Englishman then whipped in a cross that Hemed beat defender Nuno Reis to and, with a magnificently deft touch from the outside of his boot, directed beyond Glover and inside the far post. 

Metcalfe had a chance to make amends when he had golden opportunity to restore his side’s lead in the 94th minute, but the first-time City captain – handed the armband in the wake of Kisnorbo’s reshuffling – saw his effort strike the post. 

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