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Ikonomidis winner sends Victory into ALM grand final

Melbourne Victory are into the A-League Men grand final after a semi-final win for the ages, with a Chris Ikonomidis extra-time goal defying Wellington Phoenix.

Victory emerged triumphant from Saturday's titanic struggle at Sky Stadium, where a best-ever Phoenix crowd of 33,297 urged the league minnows into a first grand final.

Tony Popovic's side thought they had done it in regular time, with Adama Traore's 82nd-minute thunderbolt standing as the only goal of the two-legged semi-final.

Instead, substitute Oskar Zawada sent the crowd into delirium, with a 99th-minute equaliser - the last kick of regulation time - boosting Giancarlo Italiano's side into extra time.

WELLINGTON PHOENIX EQUALISE IN THE 99TH MINUTE. PANDEMONIUM AT SKY STADIUM 🤯🤯

Strap, in. We're going to extra time in the Semi-Final!

Tune in NOW on Paramount+ and Sky Sport (NZ) 📺#WELvMVC #ALM pic.twitter.com/lm2Qxk8CTm

— Isuzu UTE A-League (@aleaguemen) May 18, 2024

The Phoenix - who earlier spurned a penalty and struck the post - couldn't rise a second time, falling to Ikonomidis's 102nd-minute goal, when he bundled home a back-post effort from a corner.

Gazumping the Phoenix on their biggest night in the club's history, Victory's prize is a chance to play in a seventh grand final.

They will head to Gosford next Saturday night to face Central Coast Mariners, who defeated Sydney FC 2-1 over two legs.

Popovic said he was delighted with his side's resolve.

"We showed quality. We showed resilience. We showed character," Popovic said.

"We're overjoyed ... but there's one more to go."

Victory were under the cosh for long spells in Wellington and had to contend with a dubious second-half penalty.

On the hour mark and after a lengthy delay, Daniel Elder awarded the Phoenix a spot kick after replays showed a Tim Payne cross had ricocheted off Daniel Arzani's body and into his hand.

Arzani was in everything up until that point, booked after a series of rugged tackles, and enjoying Victory's best chances of the first half.

He did little wrong to draw the penalty, which Paul Izzo saved from Alex Rufer in an act of football karma, the in-form gloveman also keeping out Bozhidar Kraev's follow-up.

A fortnight ago, a 10-man Victory side came from behind to defeat rivals Melbourne City, with Izzo the hero in a penalty shootout.

Paul Izzo ⭐️

Inevitable.
#WELvMVC pic.twitter.com/l2HbT85z4q

— Melbourne Victory (@gomvfc) May 18, 2024

Ben Old, like Rufer a contender for best afield, also hit the post as Wellington pushed on, but instead Victory's Traore struck.

The Ivorian defender found himself with space on the edge of the box and unleashed an unstoppable strike past Alex Paulsen inside the far post for his first A-League goal in more than a decade.

Still Wellington pushed, the minnows rewarded when substitute Zawada raced on to Kosta Barbarouses' headed knockdown for an equaliser with the last kick of regulation time.

Unable to rally a second time after the Ikonomidis goal, Italiano was left crestfallen that the club's best-ever season would not end in a maiden grand final outing.

"It's a numbing feeling," he said.

"We had all the momentum at the end of the game. I've never felt a buzz like that in my life ... but we got punished."

While Wellington's wait for glory goes on, Victory march into a first grand final since 2018.

Winning the showpiece match will see Victory reclaim the mantle for most championships in Australian history, drawing level with Sydney FC on five.

It will also afford Popovic the chance to end a personal drought, after four grand final losses with previous clubs Western Sydney Wanderers and Perth Glory.