Western United fell to a 2-0 defeat away from home against Isuzu UTE A-League Men leaders Wellington Phoenix on Saturday afternoon.
The damage was done at the beginning of each half with Wellington striking in the third and 48th minutes to charge of proceedings.
United toiled in possession and showed flashes of promising interplay up front, but a Daniel Penha free-kick that struck the crossbar was as close as the side came to finding a goal.
Western United Team News
John Aloisi made two changes to his starting XI, welcoming James Donachie at centre-back for his league debut with Western United.
Youngster Zach Lisolajski made his first professional start at left-back with both Ben Garuccio and Connor O’Toole out injured, while fellow young defender Charbel Shamoon lay in waiting for his first senior appearance off the bench.
In total, four of the seven players on the bench were Western United Academy graduates, one of which was Rhys Bozinovski who made his return from injury.
It was a nightmare start for Western United as Wellington took the lead in front of their home fans with little over two minutes on the clock.
It was craftily constructed by the Phoenix who built the play up down their right flank before working back across to the left and eventually to Nicholas Pennington who needed only to tap into an empty net from inside the six-yard box.
That goal and the home crowd gave Wellington the early ascendancy as the hosts dictated the play and kept United busy in its defensive third.
Under duress from the Phoenix attack, Donachie and Kane Vidmar formed a solid partnership at the back and were able to rid any danger as and when it came.
Western United slowly began to play its way in the game with Angus Thurgate and Sebastian Pasquali getting on the ball more in midfield and Lachie Wales and Penha looking to stretch the game out wide.
The Green and Black put together its best move in the 24th minute, keeping possession in midfield before finding Michael Ruhs running down the right flank, but the No.9 just couldn’t pick out a teammate with his ball into the box.
United kept the pressure on and won a free-kick just outside the box towards the right-hand side of the goal, and Penha stepped up to whip the ball towards the top left corner. The strike evaded a leaping Alex Paulsen but crashed into the crossbar on its way out for a goal kick.
Aloisi’s men continued to look comfortable in possession but Wellington’s block became deeper and harder to penetrate as the half wore on, leaving United to look for a route back into the game in the second half.
What United wasn’t looking for was another sucker punch from Wellington, but that was exactly what happened almost immediately after the restart.
It had a massive slice of fortune about it as United had defended Wellington’s movement rather well as Vidmar grappled with x and forced his header to be destined well off target.
While the ball was flying well wide of the goal, Donachie was in the wrong place at the wrong time as the ball crashed into his torso and then looped into the top corner of the net.
There was a sense of déjà vu as, buoyed by their goal early in the half, Wellington seized control and pressed on looking to kill the game.
But once again, United’s defence remained resolute and ensured there were no more gaps to exploit, with the closest Wellington came to a third being a long-range effort from Bozhidar Kraev which was well saved by Heward-Belle.
That feeling of seeing double continued as just past the hour mark, Ruhs again found himself in a good position and again couldn’t connect with a teammate, this time United watching on agonisingly as the ball rolled into open space in the box without an attacker to meet it.
Shamoon came off the bench just before the hour mark and was impressive in possession, finding plenty of touches of the ball and looking to drive United forward down the right-hand side.
Bozinovski and Matthew Grimaldi came off the bench to add to the youthful exuberance on the pitch at the end of the game but there was ultimately no goal for United to celebrate as it ended in defeat in Wellington.