DOWN AND OUT: Michael Bridges hits the turf in Wellington last night. – Picture by Getty ImagesNEWCASTLE’S dreadful away form continued with a 5-2 loss to Wellington Phoenix last night.
The result left Newcastle in eighth place on 13 points, and they could be as many as five points adrift of sixth place depending on last night’s other games.
The Jets have not won on the road since January 8 when they beat North Queensland, and this season they have garnered just a single point from a possible 18 away from Ausgrid Stadium.
But nowhere is their record worse than in New Zealand, where they have now lost eight straight games by a combined tally of 23 goals to three.
Coach Gary van Egmond sent the Jets to Wellington to ‘‘make a statement’’, but they turned in their worst effort of the season and trailed 3-0 at half-time after some shambolic defending. As speculated in the lead-up to the match, van Egmond changed from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to 4-4-2, playing Ryan Griffiths alongside Francis Jeffers up front.
Ben Kantarovski anchored a diamond midfield, with Ali Abbas at the point, Ruben Zadkovich on the right and 19-year-old Jacob Pepper a surprise starter on the left.
Nikolai Topor-Stanley returned from injury to partner Tiago Calvano in the centre of defence at the expense of Taylor Regan, and there was no place in the starting side for in-form Kiwi striker Jeremy Brockie. Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert also made a raft of changes to his side to cover the loss of striker Paul Ifill (groin strain) and Nick Ward (concussion).
The Jets were without suspended captain Jobe Wheelhouse, and van Egmond had opted to rest midfield general Kasey Wehrmann.
The absence of both screening midfielders left a back four that has looked shaky all season badly exposed.
The home side took a well deserved lead in the 16th minute when left fullback Manny Muscat’s first-time pass found Brazilian Daniel, whose instinctive lob over Topor-Stanley found Dani Sanchez unmarked at the top of the box. The Spaniard took one touch before slotting the ball past keeper Ben Kennedy.
The warning lights were flashing for the visitors.
Striker Chris Greenacre found himself with space in the Jets box but could not capitalise, and Sanchez went close with an audacious chip from halfway that cleared Kennedy but also the bar.
Sanchez doubled the lead in the 34th minute when he beat the offside trap with ridiculous ease and slipped the ball through the legs of the advancing Kennedy.
The Jets were a rabble now.
Tim Brown beat the offside trap but delayed too long and allowed Tiago and Kennedy to recover.
Then Topor-Stanley, trying to play out from the back, passed straight to Leo Bertos, who dribbled through the heart of the Jets defence and crossed for Greenacre to celebrate his 34th birthday with a grass-cutting diving header.
Van Egmond replaced Jeffers with another English veteran, Michael Bridges, at half-time, and also brought on Brockie for Abbas.
The Jets started the second stanza with a bit more intensity and pulled one back five minutes after the restart when Byun Sung-hwan curled in a right-foot free kick from just outside the box through a gap in the defensive wall created by Tiago.
Replays suggested the hand-ball call against Andrew Durante that led to the free kick was harsh.
But the Phoenix continued to create chances against a Jets defence that repeatedly turned over possession.
Brown and Ben Sigmund both squandered free headers, and Topor-Stanley continued to play Santa Claus, twice passing the ball to Phoenix attackers.
Former Jet Mirjan Pavlovic came on for Sanchez in the 70th minute and was on the score sheet four minutes later. Four defenders converged on Daniel, leaving Pavlovic unmarked on the right of the box. Daniel slipped him the ball and he slotted home.
Van Egmond ended Topor-Stanley’s unhappy night soon after, bringing on Taylor Regan. But Pavlovic had a second in the 77th minute when he headed in a Daniel corner.
Griffiths headed home a corner in the 89th minute to complete the scoring.