A lucky penalty couldn't stop Wellington Phoenix from a fifth loss of the year as Brisbane Roar claimed a 2-1 victory in Wellington on Saturday.
Roar captain Matt Smith was on hand to scramble a loose ball past Glen Moss in the 37th minute.
And while the Phoenix trailed 0-1 at half-time they were given a rare penalty decision that saw Carlos Hernandez register his 37th A-League goal and – more importantly – his first for Wellington.
But just when it looked as if the hosts would secure a much-needed point against the high-flying visitors, Ivan Franjic scored a spectacular goal from the edge of the box to sink the home fans for the second time this season. His 92nd minute winner in the first round match between the two sides also gave the Roar a 2-1 away win at Westpac Stadium.
The four draw-five loss start to the season is easily the Phoenix’ worst start to a campaign, surpassing their efforts in their first year – the 2007-08 season - where they had two wins, two draws and five losses after nine rounds.
Despite the result, Merrick will be pleased to see one of his main signings registering for the first time after nine matches and a composure often not seen under predecessor Ricki Herbert.
The same couldn’t be said for Roar manager Mike Mulvey, whose side looked shaky at times against one of the worst defences in the competition. Their one-goal lead at half-time was no sign of the dominance the hosts had enjoyed, but their experience and ability to capitalise on few chances was a lesson Ernie Merrick and the Phoenix need to learn quickly.
After nine matches the Wellington club are already nine points adrift of sixth-placed Central Coast Mariners and will need some promising results against Sydney FC and Melbourne Heart if they are to remain with a chance of the playoffs in the new year.
The match was the second encounter of the year for the two sides, with the Phoenix having welcomed back all of their New Zealand internationals, who were absent in their first match of the year in the build up to the World Cup qualifiers against Mexico.
The Phoenix didn’t look like a side who had gone without a win in the opening half. They created a number of chances thanks to Kenny Cunningham’s speed on the attack and Stein Huysegems’ positioning.
Ben Sigmund’s 24th A-League yellow card in his 124th match was the first sign that frustration was creeping in from the hosts. He made up for it when he helped secure a free kick from a Besaert Berisha foul in the 33th minute.
Huysegems was a threat throughout the first half and when a deflected shot fell to Jeremy Brockie, it looked as if the New Zealand international would secure his first goal of the season. Instead he deflected the ball over the goal to leave home fans frustrated.
That anger was compounded two minutes later when, in the 37th minute, Smith gave the visitors a precious and unexpected lead. Smith kneed a contentious free kick past a diving Ben Sigmund and Glen Moss to illustrate why they sit atop the A-League ladder.
If Merrick felt nervous ahead of the match about his side’s inability to score goals, there were certainly more questions to be asked at half-time.
Instead of having his head down, Cunningham helped get his side back on level terms when he was questionably brought down in the box by defender Jack Hingert. Hernandez stepped up and scored his first Wellington Phoenix goal to equalise after 47 minutes and ensure the fans were treated to an entertaining second half.
The Phoenix pressed just as the Roar had done after they had scored their first half goal. The confidence that had evaporated at the 37th minute returned as the visitors were forced to defend.
But Franjic struck again to sink the Wellington Phoenix just as he had done in the first round encounter between the two teams, which the Roar won 2-1 at Westpac Stadium in October.
Riera looked to have given his side a late equaliser only for the ball to cleared off the line.
Wellington Phoenix: 1
Goal: Hernandez 47’ (pen)
Brisbane Roar: 2
Goals: Smith 37’, Franjic 74’