Red-letter day, but it's grey for Sky Blues
WELLINGTON PHOENIX 2 SYDNEY FC 0
Here's the good news. Alessandro Del Piero hasn't lost his class. The trick is his teammates must now learn to find him.
Queries over match fitness aside, the Italian loomed ominously in his A-League debut at Westpac Stadium last night. Every time he touched the ball, the game stood still. It is a quality held by few and revered by all.
The bad news? His teammates need to get up to speed and fast. On a typically frosty Wellington night, the Phoenix executed a mission of stealth. They were more organised, smarter, fitter and determined from the opening whistle.
Sydney's Alessandro Del Piero is tackled by Phoenix's Manny Muscat. Photo: Getty Images
If nothing else, it's a huge wake-up call. Perhaps it's one Sydney needed. As great as Del Piero is, he only has the power of one and all hopes cannot be pinned on him. Perhaps, like Melbourne Victory 24 hours before, the expectation an individual could evoke collective change was misplaced.
Either way, they need to perform significantly better for the rest of the season, starting next Saturday night against Newcastle at home.
The Phoenix were typically combative from the opening. Snarling at tackles, pressing hard and - as they did in all four of their wins over the Sky Blues last season - creating more opportunities.
Alex Smith put Ivan Necevski on notice after just eight minutes when he connected with a bullet header that forced a reaction from the keeper. When Jeremy Brockie later found himself with time in the box to contemplate, only to shoot over, the warning signs were all there.
Frustrations soon boiled over for Sydney. Terry Antonis tried to slide a pass into the clear for Kruno Lovrek, but it lacked finesse. Seconds later, Antonis was picking up a yellow for a crude tackle on Louis Fenton.
Critically, the visitors could not get their foot on the ball nearly often enough to give Del Piero and the other forwards, Joel Chianese and Lovrek, enough opportunities. At the other end, the Phoenix were finding room in the right places and might have won by a greater margin.
Fittingly, it was another European striker making his A-League debut who broke the deadlock. Stein Huysegems, a former Belgian international, snuck behind the defence just before half-time and with great composure slid his shot past Necevski. It was the least Wellington deserved.
Wellington only grew in confidence and chased a second goal to kill off the game. They found it, too, when Fenton - another making his A-League debut - powered a header past Necevski from Manny Muscat's cross.
That capped an outstanding game from the 19-year-old, who looks an instant fit at left midfield with his pace and willingness to dribble. The Phoenix academy graduate has the makings of a home-town hero.
Muscat, too, was indomitable from his position in the heart of midfield. His relentless efforts to break down the opposition and set up his teammates were qualities Sydney badly lacked. Behind him, Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund held together a defence seldom breached.
The redeeming features for Sydney? There were few, if any. The passing game that coach Ian Crook preaches was laborious at times, though they at least tried to execute it. However, all too frequently play collapsed in the build-up. This was not a fluid performance.
Not having any friendly matches in the past month has clearly hurt the Sky Blues. The lesson here is that a team cannot travel to the league's most hostile venue without being battle-hardened.
Westpac Stadium, under the gloomiest of skies, a torrent of rain and enveloped by that ubiquitous icy wind, is a nasty place. Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert has set out his stall to accommodate such conditions. His formation remains tight and they play direct, simple football. It remains highly effective.
But Sydney should know that now. They lost here three times last season. Even with a megastar in the ranks, some things stay the same.