All the talk in the lead-up to Wellington Phoenix’s first game of the new A-League Men season centred around one man: Ulises Davila.
But it was another former Phoenix player that prevented Ufuk Talay’s team from making a winning start to the campaign for just the third time, at a sodden McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle on Sunday night.
Macarthur goalkeeper Filip Kurto, who only arrived back in Australia this week after being called in to replace the retired Adam Federici and overcame a bout of food poisoning to make the starting XI, pulled off four crucial saves to hold off the fast-finishing Phoenix and secure a gritty 1-1 draw.
Returning striker Gary Hooper fired the Phoenix in front when he slotted a penalty straight down the middle on 25 minutes but his powerful spot-kick was cancelled out when Macarthur forward Lachlan Rose equalised with a back-post volley following a 61st-minute corner.
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The Phoenix pressed hard for a late winner but Kurto rushed off his line to make a brave stop on Jaushua Sotirio and copped a cut to the top of his cheek for his efforts after being collected by his opposite’s boot.
“The first half, we played very well, we dominate possession but didn’t create as much, but we were very good on the ball,” Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay said.
“We expected them to come back at us at 1-0 down, and I thought we weathered the storm quite well.
“It’s disappointing to concede from set-piece like that, but we had a couple of opportunities to possibly win it, so at the end of the day a draw is a fair result.”
Talay named a full-strength team with key men Hooper and Piscopo handed starts alongside Ben Waine and David Ball in the front four despite their limited involvement in the pre-season, but the pair produced the desired impact by setting up and scoring the first goal.
The Phoenix won the penalty when James Meredith clumsily clipped Piscopo’s ankles as the winger tried to turn inside the 18-yard box.
Referee Ben Abraham initially thought the contact was made outside the box and awarded a free-kick, but the decision was overturned by the video assistant referee.
Hooper smashed his penalty straight down the middle to open his season tally with a bang.
The Englishman had come agonisingly close to scoring inside the first five minutes after latching onto a dangerous cross from left-back James McGarry but Kurto pulled off a great save from close-range.
Macarthur came out firing in the second half and their dominance was rewarded when Rose hung off his man following a corner-kick and struck a sweetly-timed volley past Oli Sail and into the far corner.
But despite losing Piscopo to a minor ankle injury early in the second half, the Phoenix recovered from the equaliser and created enough chances to snatch a winner, but they could not find a way past Kurto.
Callan Elliot also came close to scoring a second but his effort was cleared off the line by Tomislav Uskok with 10 to go.
The stalemate extended the Phoenix’s club record unbeaten run which started last season, to 12 games.
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Gary Hooper pen-25’) Macarthur 1 (Lachlan Rose 61’)