A twenty-minute blitzkrieg has sent Wellington Phoenix into the top six as they blasted their way past a shocked Central Coast Mariners at Bluetongue Stadium.
Trailing 1-0 nil at half-time, the Phoenix immediately equalised impressively through Kenny Cunningham before he was outdone by fellow Costa Rican, Carlos Hernandez, who unleashed a trademark screamer which clipped the underside of the bar.
The hosts were left disorientated, compounded by the miss of Mile Sterjovski from the penalty spot when the score was 1-1. Barely had the shock of conceding twice sunk in when the Phoenix struck again, Cunningham nodding a loose ball to the unmarked Stein Huysegems, who took his season tally to double figures.
Rubbing salt into the wounds, and to the delight of the rowdy travelling fans, Huysegems turned provider on the break, crossing for substitute Jeremy Brockie to make it four goals in 35 minutes.
The win hoists the New Zealanders above Sydney FC – who fall out of the six ahead of their trip to Newcastle – and within one point of Melbourne Victory, Adelaide United and the Mariners.
Some may believe the result was due to the Mariners' slew of suspensions, namely to Matt Simon, Josh Rose, Nick Fitzgerald and Brent Griffiths, but those selected were seemingly in control for the opening 45 minutes.
“It was a game of two halves and I was very happy with how we played the first half, with a great goal from Bernie [Ibini],” said Mariners coach Phil Moss.
“We challenged ourselves at half-time to put two good halves of football together for the first time this season and that was end the end result. I'm not going to hide from that the fact that it's not good enough.”
Once the Phoenix's front third cut loose, the Mariners' defence were left floundering. It is a testament to Wellington's attacking depth that the wonderfully skilled Paul Ifill is injured while Brockie, so prolific in previous seasons, can only come off the bench.
The size of the defeat is one thing but it being the fourth straight for Central Coast is a hammer blow. From contenders, last year's champions are now immersed in a life-and-death scrap for the top six.
They must also contend with the hectic demands of the Asian Champions League, which begins with a trip to face FC Seoul away on Tuesday night. Only the bravest will give them a chance.
Yet Bluetongue Stadium was abuzz early in the game as the Mariners skipped away to an early lead courtesy of the in-form Ibini.
The goal was set up from deep by a delightful ball from Kim Seung-yong. The Korean gave Ibini a perfect run to take on Ben Sigmund, cutting inside the defender before curling a splendid effort past Liam Reddy.
Kim, who impressed early on, pushed up at times that he almost played as a second striker rather than an attacking midfielder. But as the game wore on, it would be a man in a similar role at the other end, Hernandez, who helped dictate the outcome.
Whatever Ernie Merrick said at half-time had an impact – less than two minutes into the second stanza, the equaliser came, though the manager later claimed it a tactical tweak.
“What we did at half-time was a restructure, only slightly. I moved Vince [Lia], Kenny and Manny [Muscat] a little bit and then switched Stein and Carlos, each having turns as a number 10, and it worked a treat,” he said. “It was hard to pick the two of them up and every time those two got the ball, it looked like they were going to do something.”
Reece Caira's inbound cross deflected towards Cunningham on the edge of the box and he lashed in a fine effort.
Drama would soon follow when referee Alan Milliner awarded a penalty in favour of the hosts as the ball struck Andrew Durante's outstretched hand. However, Sterjovski hit the penalty too softly and Glen Moss read it well.
If moments turn matches, that was it. The Phoenix suddenly believed it could be their night and opened rapid-fire.
Having lost 5-0 at home to bottom-placed Melbourne Heart last week, what followed was the ultimate response. The frenzied attack – and the ability to find an extra gear – should serve as ominous sign for all.