If the Wellington Phoenix miss out on the A-League playoffs, they'll look back on this night in Tasmania with a simmering sense of regret.
Instead of banking a win to continue their recent momentum, the Phoenix were held to a 1-1 draw on Thursday evening, despite playing against 10 men in the second half.
Western United deserve credit for their defensive resilience in the final 45 minutes, after losing a defender to a red card just before halftime, but Wellington were guilty of playing into their hands, unable to vary their approach against a massed defence.
They came alive in the final stages – with Ulises Davila striking the woodwork – but left their run too late, with Western United content to soak up pressure.
The Phoenix will also rue a series of missed opportunities and near chances in the first half, when they played some sparkling football. That could have seen them out of sight, but they were unable to build on Ben Waine's strike in the seventh minute.
In the second half the recent travel demands, from Sydney to Perth to Tasmania, probably started to bite as they lacked the physical and mental spark they had before the break.
A Phoenix win would have propelled them into seventh place – only a point behind the fast-faltering Western Sydney Wanderers – but this draw means they remain ninth.
The Phoenix made a bright start and were rewarded with a peach of a goal through Waine.
The 19-year-old has enjoyed a superb few weeks and his volley from a Davila cross – neatly directed beyond the keeper – reflected his current confidence.
The visitors should have gone further ahead, carving out a number of chances where the only thing missing was the final ball, as David Ball, Waine and Joshua Sotirio kept finding space in behind.
The Victorian side were floundering – their early approach was about as enticing as their forest green uniforms – as they struggled to hold possession and looked to foul whenever Wellington used their passing game.
But Mark Rudan's teams never lack spirit, and they gradually worked their way into the game, though their 27th minute equaliser was against the run of play.
Midfielder Lachlan Wales was left unmarked inside the area and produced a wonderful finish into the corner.
The goal came after a messy period – littered with yellow cards (two to each team) – and the Phoenix seemed to momentarily lose their focus.
Davila went close with a free kick soon afterwards, while Tim Payne did well to block a goal bound shot.
The flashpoint of the first half came in the 47th minute, as Western United defender Brendan Hamill was dismissed for a second yellow card, leading with the arm as he won a header against Waine.
It was the wrong call – and Hamill was unfortunate – but Western United's physical approach had done them no favours with the officials.
But as often happens, the numerical advantage didn't really help Wellington.
If anything, Western United looked more secure as they sat tight, with nine men behind the ball and the Phoenix were guilty of continually trying to attack through the congested central area, instead of creating space out wide.
The ball speed slowed, and Western's six-three defensive block was highly effective.
David Ball couldn't make the most of a promising position inside the area in one of their few chances, while Alessandro Diamanti had a couple of long range free kicks for the Victorian team.
Israeli striker Tomer Hemed entered the fray in the 67th minute, pushing Waine to the flanks, but the Phoenix gradually ran out of ideas, too static against the massed defence.
They came alive in the final stages, with Davila striking the post with a brilliant long range effort in the 89th minute, after creating space out of nothing, while Hemed had a couple of half chances, but it was all a bit too late.
Western United 1 (Lachlan Wales 27)
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Ben Waine 7)