Alex Rufer of the Phoenix kicks for goal in their goalless ALM draw with Wellington Phoenix. Image by Masanori Udagawa/AAP PHOTOS
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ALM top two Phoenix, Mariners slug out tough 0-0 draw

Ben McKay February 6, 2024

Wellington and Central Coast have extended their unbeaten streaks with the A-League Men ladder-leaders playing out a scoreless draw in New Zealand.

But Tuesday’s stalemate will do little to instil fear into the chasing pack of their title rivals with chances at a premium at Sky Stadium.

The Mariners came closest with two efforts in the final two minutes of regular time, when Max Balard sent a long bomb just wide and Angel Torres shot directly at Phoenix gloveman Alex Paulsen.

Bozhidar Kraev might have won it in added time, only for his deflected shot to find the arms of Danny Vukovic.

How the hosts missed star striker Oskar Zawada, who has a fresh injury and is expected to sit a month out with a groin complaint.

As if to sum up the ALM’s current ills, the table-topping sides produced an exceptionally tough watch with goalscoring opportunities few and far between in the 2pm AEDT kick-off.

“We’d played three days prior … you could tell after 30 minutes both teams were pretty fatigued,” Nix boss Giancarlo Italiano said.

Costa Barbarouses and Josh Nisbet.
 Central Coast’s Josh Nisbet and Kosta Barbarouses of the Phoenix compete for possession. Image by Masanori Udagawa/AAP PHOTOS 

The rare midweek match – rescheduled from Unite Round to give Wellington a Waitangi Day public holiday fixture – attracted their best crowd in two years: 12,301.

That fan-friendly fixturing was offset by the club’s decision to wear the away black kit at home, a regular bugbear of the Nix supporters, meaning the travelling Mariners were clad in yellow.

Neither sets of fans had much to cheer about anyway in a first half that might generously be described as tight and tense.

In truth it was simply taxing, with Central Coast’s only shot for the half flagged offside, and Wellington unable to do much better.

Kosta Barbarouses was involved in two late chances – once as provider for David Ball who shot wide, and then failing to connect with a diving header from Ball with the roles reversed.

After the break, Ben Old looked the man most likely to break the deadlock, turning and shooting too centrally on the hour mark.

Star Mariners winger Torres was well contained, unable to use his pace down the left flank.

The contest warmed as the clock ticked on with Mariners teenage talent Miguel Di Pizio blazing over after a spell of pressure.

At the other end, Kraev’s dinked cross narrowly missed Phoenix forwards in the box when a connecting head would have troubled Vukovic.

Paulsen fisted over a Mikael Doka free-kick with a minute remaining, with Brian Kaltak heading the resulting corner over before the final whistle.

Central Coast coach Mark Jackson gave credit to Wellington’s defence for the stalemate.

“Sometimes you’re off it a little bit. When you come up against a good defence you have to hold your hands up,” he said.

The result keeps the Phoenix top of the table in Italiano’s maiden season as a senior coach.

“I’ll take (the point) but there was an opportunity to win this game,” Italiano said.

The Nix haven’t lost in six matches this year and lead the way with 30 points from 16 matches.

They are two clear of the Mariners, now 12 league matches unbeaten, but no team in the competition has won more than half their matches in an open title race.