Melbourne City’s grip on a top two spot loosened after they went down 1-0 to Wellington Phoenix in front of a bumper crowd of more than 15,000 at Eden Park in Auckland.
The result puts the New Zealanders right in the battle for second position behind runaway A-League leaders Sydney.
A second half goal by English striker David Ball separated the sides, with Wellington keeping only their third clean sheet of the season in an entertaining contest in which both teams went hard at each other throughout.
City remain second heading into their bye week, but Perth Glory are just a point behind with two games in hand while the Nix and Adelaide are three points adrift with a game in hand.
It was the hosts who came closest to making a first half breakthrough in the 10th minute.
Ulises Davila found Ball with a through pass and the striker’s shot looked destined for goal until makeshift centre-back Rostyn Griffiths got back to hook the ball to safety.
Griffiths has filled in for the past fortnight at centre-half alongside Curtis Good, covering for the absence of the suspended Harrison Delbridge and the injured Jack Hendry, and the tall midfielder has made an excellent job of playing in a role that has not been his usual position.
City’s Scott Jamieson competes with Wellington’s David Ball during round 19.Credit:Getty Images
Liberato Cacace, Wellington’s teenage left-back, then spotted City goalkeeper Tom Glover off his line and tried a cheeky lob from distance as the home team sought to impose themselves.
It wasn’t all one way traffic however, as City were dangerous on the break.
Erick Mombaerts had organised his side to be compact in defence but to be quick in transition, and they had a chance in the 20th minute when full-back Nathaniel Atkinson got clear on the right and did well to get his cross in. Craig Noone’s volley looked goal-bound until it was blocked and cleared.
Just before the half hour mark the Phoenix thought they had taken the lead when City failed to deal with a free kick.
Rene Piscopo, who had starred for the Olyroos in the Olympic qualifiers, floated a cross in from the left. The ball deflected off the City wall and fell to midfielder Matti Steinmann, who prodded home from close range for what he thought was his first goal in the A-League. But after a VAR intervention officials ruled out that a touch from Gary Hooper had taken place in an offside position, thus ruling the strike out.
City’s Rostyn Griffiths, right, holds off David Ball. Credit:Getty Images
City pressed back and after Griffiths had again done well to block Ball, Spanish winger Markel Susaeta robbed Cacace and threaded a pass through to Jamie Maclaren, but the striker, normally so effective in these situations, pulled his shot wide.
The visitors began the second period at quicker pace and put Wellington on the back foot.
Adrian Luna shot well over the bar after a poor clearance from Nix goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic, but the goalkeeper redeemed himself soon after with a diving save to deny Noone’s drive.
City captain Scott Jamieson’s left foot shot was then deflected wide for a corner before Luna robbed Cacace, causing consternation in the Phoenix defence with a cross that was cleared.
Florin Berenguer then shot from a tight angle only to see Marinovic beat his effort away as City looked to get their noses in front.
But when the goal came it was at the other end with their two English forwards, Ball and Hooper, combining to great effect.
Hooper, who normally operates through the middle, hared down the right to turn provider by getting in behind the defence, before squaring a pass to Ball, who finished coolly first time to beat the diving Glover.
Both teams had their chances in the last half hour, but Marinovic stood tall and the solitary goal was enough.
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