Wellington Phoenix have ignited their A-League Men campaign with a 2-1 defeat of 10-man Western United on Friday night.
Mexican import Gael Sandoval netted on debut and English star Gary Hooper joined him on the scoresheet in the first half, helping the Nix snap a four-match losing streak to leap off the foot of the ladder.
Steven Lustica scored an injury-time consolation for United, despite Tomoki Imai seeing red for a last-man foul on Ben Waine in the 89th minute.
All eyes were on how the teams would end long COVID-enforced layoffs at WIN Stadium, with Wellington out of action for 16 days and United back for the first time since Boxing Day.
The Phoenix showed their sharpness, pouncing on defensive lapses to build a winning buffer.
When United stopper Leo Lacroix's attempted clearing header went nowhere on 16 minutes, Hooper teed up Sandoval, free in the box, to fire past Jamie Young.
On 35 minutes, Alex Rufer turned Neil Kilkenny with ease, sliding a beautiful ball to Hooper in the box.
The ex-Celtic man jinked his marker, giving himself just enough space to get a shot off through legs and wrongfooting an infuriated Young.
Outside of the two Phoenix goals, United could lay claim to the best of the first half, with more of the ball and several more shots.
Repeated efforts from Alessandro Diamanti and a fizzing effort from Lachlan Wales were foiled by goalkeeper Alex Paulsen, who continued his fine form from the FFA Cup.
The mop-topped gloveman made three penalty shootout saves to dump Melbourne City out the Cup, and was again on hand to deny Western's star Serbian Aleksandar Prijovic at close range.
The second half was easier going. Paulsen, just 19, didn't need to make a save until the 84th minute when he tipped a low Christian Theoharous effort wide.
Prijovic is yet to hit his strides but on an hour's evidence, Sandoval looks a tidy addition: whether he soars to the heights of Wellington's first Mexican signing, Johnny Warren Medal winner Ulises Davila, remains to be seen.
The Serbian at least left his mark, carving a gash on Louis Fenton's cheek in an aerial challenge that drew blood and required running repairs.
Imai's indiscretion, upgraded to red after a VAR review, meant United looked like limping to the finish line, but Lustica at least put them on the scoresheet after fine work from Theoharous.
"A win's a win and we're moving up the table," Hooper said.
Western stay third and look forward to next weekend's derby against Melbourne City, while Wellington jump to eighth ahead of an FFA Cup semi-final with Melbourne Victory.
Australian Associated Press
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