Travelling across the ditch is always a tough assignment, especially when it’s the opening match of a Hyundai A-League season.
It was a game that featured two VAR decisions which proved key to the result, and one where the Jets huffed and puffed but couldn’t blow the Wellington house down.
The Jets had the first real opportunity of the opening half when Jair was set free down the left-hand side by Ronnie Vargas, but his shot flashed agonisingly wide.
Wellington put a chance of their own into the side netting on the 11th minute mark, before Newcastle began to apply some real pressure.
Dimi Petratos went agonisingly close with a spectacular half-volley from 25 yards out, but Phoenix ‘keeper Filip Kurto pulled off a stunning save to tip it over the bar.
Vargas had another good shot saved by Kurto, before Matt Ridenton went oh-so-close to opening his Jets account against his old club with a volley from the 18-yard line, but it was cleared off the line by Louis Fenton.
All the Jets’ hard work came undone just moments later, when a Phoenix free-kick came in and was sent goalward by Steven Taylor. Daniel Georgievski attempted to head it clear, but instead headed home to give Wellington the lead with 33 minutes gone.
With half-time approaching the Jets enjoyed a positive period and a total of four set pieces in injury-time. The best chance came after a wonderful back-heel from Ronnie Vargas set up Dimi Petratos on the edge of the area, but his thunderbolt went just wide.
Kaine Sheppard came on for his Jets debut in the 57th minute, but there were hearts in mouths up the other end moments later when a feint from Roy Krishna sent the ball rolling agonisingly across the Newcastle goal. Thankfully, it was cleared.
In the 61st minute, the Phoenix thought they were two goals up after the ball was moved between Roy Krishna, David Williams, and finished off by Sarpreet Singh. The Jets defence appealed for handball, the VAR intervened, and the goal was disallowed.
Nigel Boogaard went so close to levelling the scores after a fantastic free-kick from Dimi Petratos, but Filip Kurto tipped it onto the bar and the Jets remained scoreless.
As the game wore on, things began to open up and there were chances at both ends, with Jason Hoffman and David Williams both having shots saved. Dimi Petratos went agonisingly close from a 35-yard free-kick, but it hit the top of the net.
In the 88th minute, Wellington were awarded a dubious penalty after intervention from the VAR ruled that Kaine Sheppard had brought down Mitch Nichols inside the penalty area. Glen Moss did incredibly well to get down low to his right and save Roy Krishna’s first effort, but the Fijian finished on the follow-up.
With the game winding down, Wellington had a two-goal lead and enjoyed some good field position – but the Jets had something left to say. A fantastic counter-attack sent substitute Mitch Austin downfield, who managed to direct a ball across to Dimi Petratos.
The number 7’s shot fizzed past Kurto and into the back of the net to halve the deficit, but it was too little, too late for the Jets who went 2-1 down in Wellington.
From the coach:
"I thought the Phoenix played a good game defensively and on the counter attack," Merrick said.
"Overall, I was happy with the way we played – aside from the result – we created so many good chances but just couldn't put them away.
"Mitch Nichols never claimed anything, the ball was nowhere near him and we ended up playing on for three minutes.
"I just don't understand why they [the VAR] get involved in every decision, it's the same question I asked last year – who is in charge of the game?
"I've just spoken to the boys and praised them for their performance away from home, we kept possession, we played through the middle and created lots of scoring opportunities.
"Ronny Vargas was truly outstanding, it was a brilliant performance from him."