4 Jan 2016

Phoenix stay in top six

1:02 pm on 4 January 2016

The Wellington Phoenix remain just inside the A-League playoff places after the Melbourne Victory scraped a 1-0 away win against Newcastle.

The Melbourne Victory forward Besart Berisha.

The Melbourne Victory forward Besart Berisha. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Newcastle would have knocked the Phoenix out of the top six with a win.

Hunter Stadium finally become a happy hunting ground for Kevin Muscat, after his below-par Victory clawed their way to the away win.

Fahid Ben Khalfallah's second-half winner was eight games and more than six years coming at this venue, snapping the club's long-time hoodoo and their five-match winless slump at Hunter.

For 71 painstaking minutes, it looked like neither side would break an end-to-end deadlock characterised by long balls and scarce pretty play.

But Victory ensured they remained in fifth place at the season's halfway point and closed the gap on Sydney FC to one point.

"I'm a little relieved, but more than anything I'm just pleased for the group," Muscat said.

"Because in the last three or four weeks we've been up against it in terms of travel, and we've some big decisions in games didn't go our way.

"These things happen... we had to work very, very hard for that performance tonight, to minimise their opportunities."

It leaves the deflated eighth-placed Jets winless in nine attempts and without a goal in 469 minutes and five matches - only one match less than the now-defunct New Zealand Knights' all-time record of six back in 2006.

It is what it is, another loss," Newcastle coach Scott Miller said.

"We're working hard every week, executing our game plan and not rewarding ourselves."

Victory opened the game with a flurry and forced Newcastle gloveman Mark Birighitti into a few quick saves, including a potential own goal from Jason Hoffman, who got stuck in a scramble to block Ben Kantarovski's goalward drive.

It was touch-and-go when Archie Thompson smacked the deflection back Birighitti's way but it hit the upright.

With defenders Hoffman, Daniel Mullen and skipper Nigel Boogaard finally together again, the Jets weathered the early storm and worked their way back into possession.

They fashioned admirable opportunities and in moments Serbians Milos Trifunovic and Enver Alivodic linked well, but yet again lacked the polish to whittle them into anything meaningful.

Victory, meanwhile, were mostly rickety and their possession lacked purpose befitting the defending champions.

The closest they - or indeed either side - came to opening the book before Ben Khalfalla's goal, was in the 53rd minute, when Oliver Bozanic cracked a shot dead on target as Birighitti loitered vulnerably off his line.

But Hoffman was in position for the vital block.

As the match wore on, yellow-carded Besart Berisha became a time bomb of mouthy agitation that didn't stop ticking, even when Kosta Barbarouses galloped downfield in transition and put the winner on a plate for Ben Khalfallah.

Ben Khalfallah himself had stealthily run out wide and back inside to isolate Birighitti, as Newcastle defenders called for cover that never came.

If there had been an equaliser, it looked like coming four minutes later from the head of Trifunovic, but the striker put Cameron Watson's cross into Vukovic's hands.


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