Wellington Phoenix are through to the semifinals of the FFA Cup for the first time in the club’s history after stunning Melbourne City in a dramatic penalty shootout.
19-year-old goalkeeper Alex Paulsen was the hero at Kingston Heath Soccer Complex on Wednesday, pulling off three saves in the shootout before Nicholas Pennington buried the 14th overall attempt to edge the reigning A-League Men 4-3.
Paulsen, making just his second start due to an injury to Oli Sail, batted away shots from Rosytn Griffiths, Scott Galloway and Marco Tilio, while City captain Scott Jamieson skied not only his attempt in the shootout, but also an earlier effort in the first half of the game, which finished 0-0 after extra-time.
Paulsen dived to his right to save Tilio’s effort in sudden death, saving the day for the Phoenix after Louis Fenton and captain Alex Rufer had their shots saved by City gloveman Tom Glover during a lengthy shootout which was locked at 2-2 after 10 attempts, while Joshua Laws missed the target.
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Ben Waine, Jaushua Sotirio and Clayton Lewis were successful with their spot-kicks before Pennington, an Australian under-23 international born and raised in Italy, stepped up to the spot and slotted the winning goal.
Making the win even more impressive, the Phoenix were without a host of key players. Already missing Sail due to injury and Reno Piscopo and Matthew Bozinovski due to Covid-19, they lost a further three players after an undisclosed trio recorded “inconsistent” rapid antigen tests 24 hours before the game.
The club did not name who the players were but defender Tim Payne and striker Gary Hooper were notable omissions from the match day squad.In a statement released an hour before kickoff, the Phoenix said the players would undergo further testing and enter self-isolation if required.
With Payne and Bozinovski unavailable, Rufer was asked to fill in at centre-back and he put in a strong shift out of position alongside Laws, keeping City’s potent attack scoreless for 120 minutes and helping restrict them to just four shots on target, which were all well saved by Paulsen.
Striker George Ott was handed his Phoenix debut after workhorse David Ball started to cramp up towards the end of regulation time, while left-back Sam Sutton came off with a possible knee injury after landing awkwardly.
The Phoenix’s best chance of the game came with just two minutes to go in the second half but Fenton failed to make clean contact when he lined up a bobbling cross from Sotirio.
They conceded a dubious penalty in the first half of the game after Tilio went down under slight contact from the arm of right-back Callan Elliot, but Jamieson blazed his shot over the bar anyway, avoiding controversy.
Wednesday’s win will be a massive confidence booster for Ufuk Talay’s team after losing four games on the bounce in the A-League Men, including a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of both Newcastle Jets and Adelaide United.
While Talay has always said that the A-League Men was the priority, the Phoenix are now just two wins away from getting their hands on the club’s first piece of silverware.
The semifinal draw will be made on Thursday.
Wellington Phoenix 0 Melbourne City 0
Wellington Phoenix win 4-3 on penalties