Wellington Phoenix have locked up the final slot in the A-League Men finals by defeating Western Sydney Wanderers 2-1.
Reno Piscopo's second-half strike proved the difference at CommBank Stadium on Thursday night after Sam Sutton and Tomer Hemed exchanged first-half goals, the win giving the Kiwi side an unassailable lead over Sydney FC on the ALM table.
Even if the Sky Blues win their two remaining games, they would be unable to close the eight-point gap that now exists between them and the sixth-placed Phoenix.
After being so dominant for so long, they will miss the finals for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
Forced to base themselves in NSW for almost all of the past two seasons due to COVID-19 international travel restrictions, Phoenix missed out on finals by a single point last campaign but have gone one better this time around.
"I'm glad that we did it on our own, won the game tonight and didn't rely on other results to go our way," coach Ufuk Talay said.
"We've worked hard to get to this point.
"We took a lot of lessons from last season. The things that we could control, what we could do this season.
"I'm very proud of the group, of the staff, the club and what they've achieved."
Phoenix will target a possible fourth-placed finish and a home final when they play Melbourne City on Monday, although walking-wounded attacker David Ball will likely be rested.
"If he needs an extra few days to be ready for finals football, we'll give him an extra few days," said Talay.
With Sutton's volleyed goal and Hemed's spin and shoot effort cancelling each other out, it looked as if the finals race was set to remain open at the half-time break.
But with his side playing on the counter - Phoenix ended the game with just 28 per cent possession - Piscopo's thunderbolt from the top of the box in the 65th minute proved definitive.
Hearts were in visiting mouths as Oliver Sail tipped a Jarrod Carluccio shot onto the post in the 83rd and Hemed headed into the post in the 86th but they survived.
"Luck was not on our side. And in sport, you need a bit of luck," Wanderers coach Mark Rudan said.
"It's not like we didn't try. We got shots on goal and had the ball. They played on the counter-attack.
"And it took a world-class goal by Piscopo to do it."
Australian Associated Press
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