Melbourne City’s quest for a first-ever Premiers Plate has taken a slight detour after being held to a 2-2 draw by the Wellington Phoenix.
City, who rotated the pack after their third game in a week, battled back from an early deficit following Tomar Hemed’s first-half penalty gave the Phoenix an early advantage before Naoki Tsubaki equalised just after half-time.
Jamie Maclaren, who started on the bench, thought he had the winner for City, curling home a superb free-kick for his 25th goal of the season.
However, Hemed’s late flick rescued a point for the visitors thus keeping Wellington’s slim finals hopes alive.
The Israeli international donned a kippah upon scoring the equaliser and saluted the crowd with a hand across his face.
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City now need to accumulate five points from their final four games in order to wrap up the Premiers Plate.
After a first-half of few and far between chances, it was one of City’s inclusions Ben Garuccio who brought down Louis Fenton inside the area – sending Hemed to the spot who confidently dispatched the resulting penalty.
However, City made Wellington pay for their inability to build on their one-goal lead as Marco Tilio dispossessed an under-pressure Josh Laws and played through Tsubaki to tap-home the equaliser in the 58th minute.
Attacking mainstays Craig Noone and Jamie Maclaren were thrust on in search of a winner and the former’s impact was profound, teeing up Connor Metcalfe who blasted his volley just wide.
However, the dam wall finally broke as Maclaren’s pinpoint free-kick flew into the top-corner to give Melbourne the lead with under ten minutes to play.
Despite their late foray, Ball’s cross found Hemed to flick home a late equaliser for Wellington – and extending their seven-game unbeaten run.
With games coming thick and fast, Melbourne City were forced to rotate the pack.
Key players Jamie Maclaren, Craig Noone and Scott Jamieson all started off the bench while Andrew Nabbout began his lengthy absence with an adductor injury – forcing Patrick Kisnorbo to make six changes as they look to combat fatigue and changing to a 4-4-2.
The gap in quality was obvious from half-to-half, as Maclaren and Noone were brought in search for a winner while also going back to their familiar formation.
It may have also been a glimpse into the near future with some of their key personnel including Maclaren potentially being on the verge of a Socceroos call-up in June which coincides with City’s push for a first ever A-League championship.
PHOENIX HEAD HOME
As teams have battled short-turnarounds and all the difficulties a COVID affected season can throw up – no one has had it as difficult as Wellington.
Due to the Australia-New Zealand hard border for much of the season, the ‘Nix have been based in Wollongong in order to play out the season but after the introduced two-way travel bubble between the two countries – it now means the ‘Nix will head home next week.
With Wellington still in with a slim chance of making finals, the boost of playing back in front of their home support at the ‘cake tin’ will be a welcome one for Ufuk Talay and his charges.