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Stubborn Stalemates: Wellington Phoenix must unleash Greenacre
19.10.09

Greenacre has been somewhat strangled by A-League defences thus far.

Greenacre has been somewhat strangled by A-League defences thus far.

When Robbie Fowler headed home a late equaliser for North Queensland Fury against Wellington Phoenix on Saturday night, he condemned the Phoenix to become the new holders of one of the A-League’s more dubious records; their six consecutive draws is now the longest stretch of stalemates that one club has embarked upon in the competition’s five year history.

The most confusing thing though, is that Wellington have actually been playing quite an attacking brand of football for much of this season, have had more shots on goal than any other side in the league and have been creating lots of chances. If they are to break this frustrating sequence though, they need to find out how to get the most from Chris Greenacre, their English striker who was a prolific poacher for Tranmere Rovers in the English Championship. So how can it be done?

Many fans have criticised Greenacre himself for failing to get on the end of the balls being played into the box and have suggested that he lacks the positional sense and the hallowed “striker’s instinct” when it comes to getting himself in the right place at the right time. Watching him play though, I disagree. His pedigree speaks for itself and anyone who checks out his goal compilations on YouTube will see that here’s a player who knows how to sniff out a chance and put it in the net.

In fact, the problem lies with the service that Greenacre has received. It’s true that many balls are put into the box and Greenacre doesn’t get on the end of them, but that is because they are not the right balls being played. Leo Bertos and Paul Ifill, the club’s standout players so far this season, are both high quality wingers and provide good service into the area for a targetman, but unfortunately for Wellington, a targetman is precisely what Greenacre is not.

The club’s management spent much of the Summer looking for a targetman partner for Greenacre who by his own admission is a player who scores the “ugly goals” and feeds off the scraps in and around the penalty area. He needs someone next to him to create those scraps though and while Ifill was signed with that role in mind, this hasn’t eventuated as despite his imposing physical presence, the Barbadian is far more comfortable with the ball at his feet and a defender to run at.

The club’s other strikers (Costa Barbarouses and Jiang Chen) aren’t suitable for that role either and so with a targetman in short supply, they need to look at other options. The place to start is by looking at how Greenacre prefers to receive the ball, and that is without doubt into his feet. He’s neither exceptionally strong nor quick, but he does have a good footballing brain and can outmaneuver defenders, as he showed with aplomb when firing his debut goal past Newcastle Jets.

For Wellington though, this represents something of a problem given that the club’s only creative work ever occurs on the flanks. As I said earlier, it is Bertos and Ifill who provide Wellington’s spark and they are both at their most effective when out wide. However, this leaves Wellington with a very one dimensional attacking strategy because when the ball is wide the only real option for creating danger is to whip a ball into the box to be attacked.

Now Greenacre is actually pretty good in the air, but lacks the physicality to compete with the league’s big central defenders and so unless they allow him to wriggle free or he finds some support from midfield – as happened on Saturday with Tim Brown notching Wellington’s goal – he provides only a very slight target for these wingers to hit. It also doesn’t help that many of the crosses put into the box aren’t what you’d call measured – many Phoenix players seem content with launching their crosses at the penalty area itself, rather than at one particular player within it.

No, what the Phoenix need is another avenue of attack. They need to be able to create opportunities through the middle of the park as well as down the flanks, but this is where the problem begins to emerge fully. Tim Brown, Vince Lia and Jon McKain, the club’s resident central midfield players, are all hugely combative and do an excellent job of shielding their defence and breaking up opposition attacks, but none of them have any real creative flair.

While each is usually competent when picking out an unmarked team mate, they do not have the vision to identify Greenacre’s movement and anticipate where and when he will appear looking for the ball. Because Greenacre’s movement on the pitch is prolific, whether or not the ‘Nix have the ball he never stops running and when the midfield is in possession he’s constantly trying to fashion himself a little space in which he can receive the ball to feet, turn his defender and get a shot on goal.

But the central players don’t have the skill or ambition to attempt these sorts of passes. They are far happier to play the ball sideways to the feet of Bertos, Ifill or Brazilian winger Daniel and then allow these flair players to get the service into Greenacre – service that ultimately doesn’t suit his style of play. For me then, there are two possible solutions to this problem, two ways in which the Phoenix can get the best out of Greenacre and thereby put and end to their goalscoring frustrations.

The first is to sign a targetman. While leaving them one-dimensional in attack, this would greatly increase the potency of their attacks because the service into the box would suddenly have a focal point. A big striker who could compete aerially with the opposition centre backs will score plenty of goals himself but even when he can’t put a cross in the net, he will create the sort of scraps and knockdowns that Greenacre loves to feed on.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as going out and buying a targetman because players effective enough to shine in the A-League aren’t freely available, and while the ‘Nix have room under their salary cap and a marquee contract available, they have little financial power to pay transfer fees and there will be few free agents buzzing around the market until the European seasons start to come to an end next June – and as this summer proved, finding the right man is a difficult job.

The second solution is for Ricki Herbert to bring some creativity into his central midfield partnership. While I truly admire the job that Lia, Brown and McKain do in the centre of the park, their lack of ball-playing talent is limiting the Phoenix’s success, and Herbert needs to make a sacrifice if he is to bring in the necessary creative spark that is required.

The simple fact is that the Phoenix’s creative midfield players are as limited as the defensive ones. The likes of Diego, Daniel or Adrien Caceres who could feasibly be brought into a central midfield role to add a bit of flair and endeavour will contribute very little to the side in a defensive sense. There simply aren’t many ‘complete players’ in the A-League when compared to Europe’s bigger leagues. It’s not that the players here are generally worse than those in Europe, but that they are comparable in some aspects but almost completely lacking in some other parts of their game.

Bringing in a creative midfielder then, would be a big risk for Ricki Herbert who is famously quite a conservative coach. His system of shielding his back four with two hard-tackling midfielders has successfully stemmed the heavy flow of goals that the Phoenix conceded in their debut season but as I’ve said, it is also limiting their attacking capabilities. I think that it is a risk worth taking though.

In recent weeks the form of captain Andrew Durante has been steadily increasing and indeed, he was a rock against North Queensland on Saturday. Allied with the ever committed and consistently solid Ben Sigmund, he has developed a partnership that has gone from strength to strength in recent times – and looks a good deal more secure than it did for much of last season and at the start of this one, and with Jon McKain also proving his quality at centre back against Melbourne a few weeks ago, there is plenty of reassurance should it be needed.

With full backs Muscat and Lochead also in good touch, I think Herbert may rightly feel at liberty to free up one of his central midfielders to a more attacking purpose. Deciding who out of Brown, Lia and McKain should be sacrificed would be the toughest part of such a decision given that all have been playing well, while selecting the man to come in will also be troublesome. Diego performed apathetically at the start of the season while Daniel is perhaps too lightweight for the centre of the park.

If it were me though, I’d look to give Troy Hearfield a free rein in there behind the strikers. The young Australian has never secured a decent run in the side and has been used as something of a utility man at times, filling in at right back for Muscat on Saturday. However, in the glimpses I’ve seen of him he’s shown a lot of skill and flair, as well as plenty of attacking ambition – he’s not been afraid to try and pick out killer passes and he also has a very dangerous shot on him as an added bonus.

Playing at right-back is not his natural position of course, but it will have given him some experience of the defensive side of the game and he’s shown himself to be a tenacious player at times, willing to get stuck in for the team and that will surely only help him to contribute defensively if deployed in central midfield too, something that could not be said of the other options. With Jon McKain currently sidelined with injury then, I’d like to see the Phoenix line up as follows for their match against Gold Coast United on Sunday:

Paston
Muscat | Sigmund | Durante | Lochead
Lia/Brown
<—Bertos | Hearfield | Daniel—>
Ifill | Greenacre

Of course, such a move would be ambitious indeed given that Sunday’s opposition, Gold Coast United, are the league leaders and possess the deadly attacking trinity of Shane Smeltz, Joel Porter and Jason Culina, but with the Phoenix possessing home advantage – as they do for three of their next four fixtures – I feel that Herbert has little choice but to try and step up a gear and really take the game to their opposition on home soil.

Playing more defensively away from home may remain a good option but with the season progressing quickly and the Phoenix still floundering near the bottom of the table and slipping away from the all important play-off positions, they need to find their winning form quickly. Herbert has shown with his swashbuckling tactics for the All Whites against Bahrain that he isn’t afraid to go for the jugular and we need to see him translate that into club management too.

Greenacre is a quality player who certainly knows where the goal is, and with the club’s results stagnating into a repetitive sequence of draws it’s vital that they start to utilise this player properly. When a team relies too heavily on one method of attack it can be easily stemmed, and the introduction of a more attacking minded player – Hearfield or otherwise – to the middle of the park could be the spark that will ignite the Phoenix’s season, their push for the playoffs and Chris Greenacre.

And at the very least, it would give us something different after all these tiresome bloody draws.

Wellington Phoenix 1-1 Adelaide United: Match Reaction

Ifill was similarly bemused when his goal was disallowed.

Ifill was similarly bemused when his goal was disallowed.

I’ve just this minute watched Wellington Phoenix and Adelaide United play out a 1-1 draw at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington and I’m fucking pissed off. I hate to sound like a broken record on this blog, and I know I had a good whine about Mike Dean ruining the game between Man United and Arsenal the other day, but given that this match was played in a different league on the other side of the world, I feel entitled to have another moan.

Wellington fully deserved to take three points from this game against Adelaide which wasn’t always the most fluent affair and saw some full-blooded commitment on show from both sides, but it was on the whole an entertaining affair. The Phoenix had plenty of chances to win it too and Tim Brown needs to visit finishing school after missing three absolute sitters, but they were well and truly robbed by possibly the worst offside decision I’ve ever seen.

After a long period of heavy pressure as the second half drew to a close, the ‘Nix finally had their breakthrough, a Chris Greenacre knock down being slipped through for Paul Ifill to race onto, and the Barbadian hitman finished it with aplomb to the delight of everyone in the Westpac stadium – apart from the wee group of Adelaide fans who made it, good effort to them – until they realised that the linesman hadn’t raised his flag in a gesture of celebration but to rule out the goal.

It was a mystifying decision. So much so that when Ricki Herbert realised what had happened, he actually took off towards the official in question with red mist descending in front of his eyes, appearing far less like the ‘Retro’ Ricki that we see on Yellow Fever shirts around Wellington, and more like some sort of Jack-Nicholas-in-The-Shining lookalike Raging Ricki. And quite rightly so.

Watching from Nelson on the TV, I had the benefit of a an immediate TV replay but even on the live footage, I knew that there was absolutely no way in hell that Ifill was offside. Indeed, I think that in fairness the linesman knew that wasn’t the case either. Unfortunately, the linesman seems to have decided that Chris Greenacre who had moved into an offside position after nodding the ball down, was still somehow interfering with play and thus should be judged offside.

Well I’m sorry, but that’s complete and utter bollocks. It had quickly turned into a straight footrace between Ifill and the Adelaide defender (I don’t know his name, apologies) and there was only ever one winner. Greenacre made no effort to get to the ball and so he was not interfering with play. As such he was not offside and the linesman should not have raised his flag, and Ifill’s wonderful finish should not have been ruled out.

It’s just absolutely ludicrous, and the only conclusion I can draw is that the officials in charge of this game do not actually fully understand the rules that they are paid to uphold. Everyone with eyes could see that Ifill was not offside, and even though the linesman wrongly flagged, the referee should have had the brainwave of over-ruling a clearly incorrect call from his official. Unfortunately, though the quality of the football in the A-League is improving greatly all the time, the refereeing is still distinctly amateur.

Even after that travesty though, the Phoenix looked like they’d secure the three points that they thoroughly deserved, and should have done when the ball again fell to Tim Brown inside the area but he couldn’t find the net, crashing his shot against the defender. A point was scant reward for a good performance from the Phoenix, and severe punishment for one defencive lapse from a corner which gave the Reds a very soft goal midway through the first half.

The performance of the referee constantly rankled though. Adelaide centre-half Mark Rudan should have been dismissed early in the game, after going into a headed challenge with his elbow very much pointed at Tim Brown’s head, but mysteriously was not even cautioned for the attack. Referee Michael Hester finally did book Rudan later in the half for a two-footed tackle from behind, another challenge that should have seen the defender dismissed. I really have no idea how he stayed on the pitch all game.

It wasn’t just the foul calls that the officials got wrong either, as Mark Rudan and his assistants consistently misjudged the awarding of throw-ins and corners – for both sides – though it did seem that Wellington were particularly hard done by, and it says little for the quality of refereeing in NZ that Hester is one of their two shortlisted referees up for a place at the World Cup in South Africa… worrying indeed.

Overall then, it was a tragically poor performance from the match officials and though I don’t want to use that as an excuse for the ‘Nix’s failure to secure three points, they pretty much did cost them the game. While Wellington, and Tim Brown in particular, could have had the game tied up before half time, there’s simply no getting around the fact that they had a perfectly good goal ruled out for absolutely no reason, and so the officials have certainly cost the Phoenix two points today.

Herbert then, will be rightly pissed off, but I think he does have a lot to be pleased about too – once the rage subsides. Paul Ifill was simply brilliant tonight – you can tell he’s really getting upto speed now and I don’t think it’s too exaggerated a claim to suggest that he’s one of the very best players in the league, and a stunning acquisition for the Kiwi club. Most importantly though, I was hugely impressed with the new look back four tonight.

With Manny Muscat away on international duty with Malta, Ben Sigmund sidled over to right back and Andrew Durante and Jon McKain resurrected a central defencive partnership that was frankly a complete disaster at the start of last season. However, tonight they looked very solid and assured despite the very physical threat of Llyod Owusu and Cristiano for Adelaide. Tony Lochead also had his best game in a while and was actually quite willing to get forward as he did in the Phoenix’s debut campaign to such effect.

Credit to that must go to Vince Lia and Tim Brown who played their holding midfield roles with aplomb, constantly breaking up the Adelaide attacks and showing that they weren’t afraid to give as good as they got when the match started to turn into quite a dirty affair. I have to say that Manny Muscat could, on this performance, have a hard time regaining his first team place – unless the injury that saw Sigmund limp off is more serious than it looked.

Leo Bertos was quieter than usual though, his switch into a more central role limiting his foraging runs down the wings that have proved so effective so far this season, but Herbert will have been pretty happy with the performance of Daniel on the left hand side. While he as ever didn’t offer the greatest work rate and little defensive contribution, he did show that of all of the Phoenix’s players, he is the most likely to conjure a really dangerous ball into the box, and a spark of imagination.

Overall then, I’m absolutely gutted that the Phoenix didn’t manage to finally defeat Adelaide – something they haven’t managed once over their two season history in the A-League, but the performance was at least a damn sight better than last week against Sydney. I just hope that Herbert has the balls to stick with this more attacking formation away from home too. While we’ll certainly face more potent attacking forces against other sides, I think the defensive performance was encouraging and that back six should be able to cope with most A-League sides.

Progression is always what we’re after, and that performance was well and truly better than last weeks and so hopefully next week we can give an even better performance and pick up an improved result too. Certainly the A-League as a whole is progressing too, in terms of both quality and excitement, it’s just a shame that the standard of refereeing seems to be going backwards and reflects badly on the league as a whole, making it look extremely amateur indeed.
Man of the Match: Paul Ifill, by a country mile.

Newcastle Jets 3-2 Wellington Phoenix: Match Reaction
10.08.09

Triantis and Brown battled for control of the midfield.

Triantis and Brown battled for control of the midfield.

Last night saw the Wellington Phoenix kick off their 3rd season in the Hyundai A-League away at Newcastle, and within twenty-two minutes of the kick off all the pre-season hype about their struggle to replace last season’s Golden Boot winner was looking frankly ridiculous. It was the defence that we wanted to be worrying about as two goals were quite simply gifted to the Jets on a silver platter, Jason Hoffman making no mistake with two simple opportunities.

Indeed, it was reminiscent of the ‘Nix’s performances in their first A-League campaign when their defence regularly capitulated to an almost comical degree, eventually condemning them to a last place finish. But those demons seemed to have been exercised last season when Andrew Durante, Ben Sigmund and Jon McKain joined the club and together established a fairly solid defensive combination. If last night’s performance is anything to go by though, the loss of Karl Dodd and Glen Moss are far bigger problems than the much discussed departure of Smeltz.

However, although the performance from the Phoenix was well below par in the defensive quarter, there was actually plenty of promise further up the pitch. New signing Chris Greenacre looked lively and clearly possesses a great touch and awareness to link up play, while Leo Bertos caused havoc in the Newcastle defence on occasion with his direct and lively running. Paul Ifill, the other new striking recruit had a quieter game but having arrived only last week and playing in his first game for the club, deserves some slack.

Some concern may be raised about the tendency to resort to the long ball, which is worrying for Phoenix fans who want to see their team play some more stylish football (although Newcastle’s lump-it strategy was just as obvious and brought them rewards thanks to the ‘accomodating’ defending). Indeed, Ricki Herbert may well have to reconsider the balance of his side, because though Tim Brown and Jon McKain occupied the central midfield roles for much of last season, and though both are capable enforcers in there, both also lack any real flair and creativity.

To be fair, it was widely expected that Herbert would employ a 4-4-2 with these two holding midfielders in the centre for the game, with Herbert’s natural cautious nature (he himself was a defender) bound to become more pronounced when playing away from home. However, now that the squad boasts the more attacking midfield options of Diego, Daniel, Ferrante, Rojas, Bertos and Hearfield; Herbert has no excuse for not employing a more positive attitude in next weeks home fixture against Perth Glory.

While the combination of Brown and McKain provided an excellent shield for the defence last season, they simply do not inspire any real creative link up play and so the team must resort either to the much bemoaned ‘long ball’ or hope that Bertos or Hearfield on the flanks can find some penetration. However, the opposition can soon become wise to these limited attacking strategies and easily defend against them, and that is why Wellington struggled so much in terms of goalscoring last season.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. While Newcastle aren’t the strongest of sides in the A-League and a defeat to them is disappointing, I think it’s important to remember that the Phoenix actually brought defeat upon themselves. None of the Jets’ three goals were a result of the ‘Nix being outplayed by a superior team, they were simply a result of the Phoenix defending like five year old children.

While this is naturally a concern, we know that usually the likes of Sigmund and Durante are more than capable A-League defenders, and that it is exceedingly unlikely that they will perform so poorly again this season. So while the defeat is certainly a disappointing way to begin, at least the manner of it was self-inflicted, which means that Ricki has every chance of improving the side before their next outing, when they can hopefully get some points on the board.

So should we be depressingly lamenting the loss of Glen Moss and Karl Dodd? No. They were both very good players for the Phoenix, but ultimately we have players in place capable of doing what they did, and I’m sure that they will start to justify my faith in them sooner rather than later. But likewise, we should not lament the loss of Shane Smeltz either. Because although he was a fantastic player for the club, the signs so far are that despite the defeat, the Phoenix have found players who can score goals.

So all in all it was an inauspicious start to a season for which we all had such high hopes for the Phoenix. However, a season is a marathon and not a sprint, and so to fall behind the leading pack at this stage is no bother at all. Of course we would have liked to begin with a win, but there were enough promising signs from the Phoenix in Newcastle to fend off the disappointing manner of the defeat and to keep me content in my optimism. More than anything, it’s just nice to have the season underway at last, and the prospect of live football at the Ring Of Fire next week.
Man of the Match: the ‘Nix’s wing-man Leo Bertos probably looked like the most dangerous player on the park and provided assists for both Phoenix goals, so he gets the nod.

Guest Blog – ‘Nix vs. Toffees: A Sweet Proposition for NZ Football
06.03.09

guest-blog-topper

Hello Phoenix fans, I interrupt the stagnating off-season silence on this page to bring you a guest blog discussing the recently announced possibility of a friendly match between Wellington Phoenix and Everton. I reckon it’s a great opportunity not just for the ‘Nix but also for football in New Zealand on the whole. Click the ‘Guest Blog’ topper to have a read over at Beautiful Game.

Sydney 1-0 Wellington Phoenix: Match Report
11.01.09

Are the Phoenixs hopes of the playoffs over, despite Glen Moss best efforts?

Are the Phoenix's hopes of the playoffs over, despite Glen Moss' best efforts?

There are few more frustrating feelings in life than when watching Wellington Phoenix play on ‘one of those days’. Those ‘days’ are annoyingly common, and their defining characteristic is that though they play well through the midfield, the ‘Nix completely and utterly lack and spark or creative flair in the final third and so rarely threaten the opponents goal, despite often dominating possession. Today was ‘one of those days’.

This loss to Sydney puts a massive dent in the Phoenix’s hopes of a top four finish, as we spurned the chance to go level on points in fourth spot with Central Coast Mariners. The game was often scrappy, but whenever the ball did get down on the turf and get knocked about a bit, it was always Wellington who were in possession, and for most of the game, one always felt that the goal was coming for the Phoenix.

We had a few chances, balls flashed into the box from good work by Bertos and in particular Troy Hearfield down the flanks were stabbed at by Smeltz and Brown, but they were just unable to force the ball into the net. Neither ‘keeper had too many real saves to make in the first half, but it was certainly the ‘Nix who came closest to threatening, with Mark Bridge, Sydney’s loan striker, being conspicuous only by his absence for large periods.

The second half was more lively, Phoenix showing a bit more urgency in their attacks but there was just a lacking of that little extra ‘something’. It’s hard to pin point exactly what it is that they are missing, but they certainly need more quality in the midfield. They look worryingly short of ideas at times, with our only route to goal seemingly through the wingers lobbing balls into the box. That is a shame, as Smeltz, while obviously great in the air, is also one of the better finishers in the league and more balls played through to his feet could surely be put to good use.

Sydney said before the game that the key to stopping the ‘Nix was to stop Shane Smeltz, and they were right. They managed it up to an extent, mainly by trying to limit the balls into the box from our wingers, and Bertos especially was quieter than usual, and the crosses he did get over weren’t up to the standard that was needed to pick out a lonely looking Smeltz in a box full of light blue shirts.

Troy Hearfield on the other hand was looking lively, and was frequently getting past his man and putting speculative balls across the face of the goal. Unfortunately it was Hearfield, our best player for much of the game that eventually turned into the villain of the piece. He had been having quite a battle with Alex Brosque for most of the game, and both players had been getting wound up as the game wore on, but Hearfield let Brosque get the better of him when he reacted to a poor challenge from the pesky midfielder.

After leaving him for dead, Brosque chopped Hearfield to the ground, and the two players went forehead to forehead as the referee marched across to book Brosque for his challenge. The slightest incline of the head from Hearfield was seized upon by Brosque who convinced the referee that he had been head-butted, when really there was nothing in it but petulance from the young ‘Nix winger. It was a soft dismissal, but he ran the risk by rising to the bait of his more experienced opponent and may learn a harsh lesson from this episode.

Having said that, I was deeply unimpressed with referee Ben Williams for most of the night. He gave far too many fouls for 50/50 aerial challenges (a growing, and worrying, trend the world over) and missed a rather blatant penalty in the second half when Smeltz was shoved from underneath a looping cross by a backtracking defender. If Smeltz had made more of it surely the offence would have been spotted, which will eventually coerce players into resorting to play-acting to get the decisions – a development that we do not want to see.

Once Hearfield was dismissed, the game changed completely. Before Wellington had been comfortable in possession and gradually probing and probing at the Sydney defence. However, a man down makes a big difference and suddenly Sydney had far more of the ball and began to build the pressure. And Wellington’s passing game for the most part deserted them just at the moment when they needed it most. When they should have been trying to make the ball do the work to lessen the burden of a missing man, they instead resorted to punting the ball up the pitch, usually allowing Sydney to regain possession and start a new attack with ease.

Still, they were struggling to break through the defence as we reached the last ten minutes and with the introduction of Jeremy Christie in place of Ferrante, the ‘Nix had a brief revival where it looked like they may nick the three points after all. Unfortunately a few efforts from distance resulted only in poor deliveries from corners and dallying on the ball almost cost us, as Sydney broke with their young guns full of pace and optimism.

It wasn’t to be though, a point would have been less than the ‘Nix deserved, but then they conceded a good goal to Sydney after a neat interchange of passes set Kofi Danning free to slot past a helpless Glen Moss in the Wellington goal and their play off hopes took a massive blow, the ‘Nix left to rue a lack of creativity in the midfield and a moment of hot-headed madness from Troy Hearfield.

We now face a huge task to make the play off spots that we have fought so bravely for all season, as we still trail the Mariners by three points (and a significant goal difference) with only two matches remaining. Both Wellington and the Mariners face the top two sides in their last two games, so face a battle to take anything at all from them, which of course leaves Central Coast firmly in the driving seat and even Syndey, who had looked out of it, are still in with a shot after tonight’s result.

There are still glimmers of hope for the Phoenix but we will surely have to take something from league leaders Adelaide next week, and we all remember what happened in the last fixture between those two sides (if you don’t remember, I won’t remind you, I’ll just say this: it wasn’t pretty). One positive that can be taken from this season if we don’t make it though, is that there has been definite progress from our first, and we will be the first NZ team not to take the wooden spoon in Australian football competitions. But after such a charge and such promise, it will be severely disappointing if we throw it all away and don;t make the prospects. It’s not over yet though, and in football, stranger things have always happened.
Man of the Match: Tim Brown.

Wellington Phoenix 3-0 Newcastle Jets: Match Report
04.01.09

Bertos scrambles in Wellingtons opener.

Bertos scrambles in Wellington's opener.

Fans of Newcastle Jets must be wondering what on earth has happened to their club this season, the reigning A-League champions find themselves rooted to the foot of the table going into the last three rounds of this season, and yet the side hasn’t changed too much. They still boast such quality as the Griffiths twins, Tarek Elrich and Matthew Thompson among others and really should be a force in this league.

Wellington Phoenix on the other hand, have gone the other way this season, but not in so dramatic a style. Wooden spoon ‘winners’ last season, they now find themselves in a realistic hunt for a play off place after a few good additions to their squad in the summer, and an injection of passion and hard work at key times throughout the season. That does not tell the story today though, and neither, really and truthfully, does the scoreline.

This was a very even game, the first half in particular was very scrappy with possession changing hands for well under the going rate far too often. But if any side looked like breaking the deadlock, it was probably Newcastle, and Tarek Elrich, a live wire throughout, perhaps should have put them ahead. He forced a couple of top draw saves out of Glen Moss (who we are really going to miss next season), but by rights the ‘keeper should have had no chance of saving shots from such great positions – one in particular found Elrich with acres of space inside the area and no one but Moss in his way, but it seems the name ‘Elrich’ does not mix well with the Westpac Stadium and Tarek continued Ahmed’s tradition of fluffing his lines.

Wellington had just one real chance ton goal in the first half when a good corner from Daniel was met by an unmarked Ben Sigmund, but the committed defender could not get his header on target – a shame because if anyone deserves a reward for their performances this season, it is Sigmund. The teams went in level at half time, and if anything, the game lacked a bit of passion, a bit of fight. That is perhaps understandable for Newcastle who’s A-League season is over now that the Play-Offs are beyond them, but I expected more from a top four chasing ‘Nix.

The second half was a definite improvement, and gradually, the Phoenix grew into the game, eventually becoming the dominant force, but without forcing any saves from Kovic in the Newcastle goal. Joel Griffiths was trying to do everything for the visitors in attack but when he was winning the ball, taking the throw ins and playing the through balls, they lacked anyone with real class to do his job for him, as Elrich was getting increasingly frustrated by both his failures and the dominance of Dodd and Sigmund at the back for Wellington.

Eventually the game sparked into life, with Daniel, Hearfield and Bertos at last getting forward to support Smeltz more, and it was Bertos who nearly made the breakthrough, wriggling past his man on the left hand side, he charged into the penalty area and delayed his pass, waiting for a rough challenge to come in. Newcastle didn’t disappoint him, and he was body-checked to the ground. It looked a penalty to me, but the ref didn’t give it: surprising considering the wealth of petty fouls for which he had been awarding free kicks all game. Luckily, Wellington didn’t rue it for long.

About fove minutes later, the ball broke to Hearfield in midfield and (against my instructions to hit the byline shouted at the TV) whipped an early ball into the area. It glanced past two Jets defenders and the keeper before making contact with Leo Bertos’ hip and bouncing towards the goal. Both Bertos and the ‘keeper threw themselves at the ball as it bounced tantalisingly toward the line and in the confusion it somehow made it across the line. Not the classiest goal you’ll ever see by a long way but Wellington will take it. It had just been beginning to get to the “oh no, this could be one of those days” point, but the goal changed everything.

A few minutes later, after Wellington had for once looked comfortable and un-panicky after going ahead, that man Shane Smeltz doubled the lead. A ball punted forward was won in an aerial challenge by the Queensland-bound hit man, and he spun and pounced on his own flick, delicately dinking the ball over the onrushing ‘keeper and finding the far corner with a beautifully measured finish. Cue bedlam inside the Ring of Fire. We had not been particularly convincing but surely now the three points, and the continued push for the play offs, were in the bag.

One would have thought so, but straight from the re-start the Jets surged forward and created panic in the ‘Nix area, with the ball just about trickling wide after a coming together of Moss and Sigmund with a Jets attacker (I couldn’t pick him out!) all of which were hurt in the challenge. Replays suggested to me that Sigmund may have helped the ball wide with his hand, but the referee, thankfully, spotted nothing. The game was heating up and Sigmund and Elrich had a bit of a scrap when Elrich kept biting at the defenders heels as he shepherded the ball out of play. Sigmund reacted but will be relieved he didn’t pick up a second yellow card, as Durante and McKain were already serving suspensions today.

Finally, the game was put beyond doubt when Hearfield, who had a lively second half, completed a mazy run into the penalty area, and after running into a wall of Newcastle defenders was somewhat needlessly brought down as he looked for options outside the box. Definitely a penalty, and Shane Smeltz (who else?) stepped up to smash a confident spot-kick into the top left hand corner of the goal and take his season tally to twelve, three ahead of his nearest rival in the chase for the Golden Boot (oh god we’re going to miss him next year too).

The game was seen out rather comfortably by the Phoenix who will be delighted with the three points which keeps them in the hunt for the top four. With Newcastle definitely out of contention and Perth and Sydney seemingly too far off the pace as well, it looks like the ‘Nix main contenders for the fourth spot are Central Coast and Melbourne. The scoreline was very harsh on Newcastle today though, they acquitted themselves well and certainly dominated for periods throughout the game. Though they are clearly a side short on confidence, they still looked a threat and their fans will look back on this season with the words “what could have been” in the forefront of their minds.

Wellington will take a big positive from this game though. The three-nil scoreline will give them confidence, as will the fact that they won this game despite the absence of McKain and Durante who have both been important players for them this turn. Sigmund came back into the side and picked up straight where he left off and Daniel completed 90 minutes for (I think) the first time this season, even making a few good tackles in the process, and his attacking play provided a bit more creativity at times than we have seen for the majority of the season.

What will please Herbert the most though is the spirit the players showed in the second half. After a poor first half from both teams, it would have been easy to get frustrated and start lobbing balls forward with more hope than purpose. Instead, they kept battling away and looking to get the ball wide and into the box, through Bertos and Hearfield, who came into their own as they game wore on, and eventually, the breakthrough came from that use of width.

An even game won then, by the Phoenix thanks to some superior finishing and a bit of luck (with the first goal especially). There was only one real standout performer; Smeltz took his first goal beautifully and Brown was a tireless thorn in the Jets attackers’ sides. Bertos and Hearfield looked dangerous throughout and with better service later on made the difference, but man of the match goes to Glen Moss, because if it hadn’t been for some top class saves early doors, Wellington wouldn’t have been in the game (and probably the race for the Play-Offs) at all.
Man of the Match: Glen Moss.

Queensland Roar 3-2 Wellington Phoenix: Post-Match Analysis
29.12.08

A lack of protection ultimately costs Durante, and the Phoenix, dear.

A lack of protection ultimately costs Durante, and the Phoenix, dear.

A disappointing result last night for the Phoenix in a game that they may feel that they should have won considering they twice took the lead. But in truth, it was an average performance, Queensland were the better side, and in many ways I think it may indeed boil down to the fact that we took the lead too early. Thinking back over the game last night I settle on two parts of the game that really let us down in my opinion, so I’ll outline them here.

First of all, I think that the players are in a way, too used to losing. Thus, when they took an early lead from Devere’s own goal against the run of play, they were a little surprised to find themselves ahead. A team that is high on confidence and used to victory are comfortable in that position. They may not have earned the lead, but having got it, they know what to do with it. Wellington though, didn’t seem to know what to do when they found themselves ahead so early in proceedings.

What they needed to do was settle the game down, and treat it as if the score were back to 0-0. Play the ball around, keep possession as much as possible and be patient in building attacks. Don’t take any great risks with the ball, they know they have a lead and so they don’t have to rush towards the goal at every opportunity, but they also know that without the ball, Queensland can’t score.

What actually happened though, was nearly the exact opposite. Though they hadn’t had much of the ball before they scored, it should have let them calm down and given them some breathing room. Instead, when they got the ball off Queensland, they were far too careless in their use of it. As usual far too many long balls were tossed hopefully toward Shane Smeltz, which meant that it just kept coming back at them.

There was no initiative shown from anyone to just get the ball, and keep it. Knock it around the back four, across the middle, switch the play, make Queensland chase it, frustrate them. Instead they allowed the Roar to harry them, and they panicked. When pressured, instead of playing the easy ball backwards or sideways, they punted long in the hope of creating another goal from nothing.

Quite simply, they didn’t know what to do with themselves. No one expected them to go ahead so early, it wasn’t part of their game plan and no one could improvise because it is quite a foreign situation for them. Ricki Herbert needs to work on this aspect of their game. When they are well drilled and know what needs to be done, they have the talent to do it. But in this situation it was the players’ mental awareness that let them down. They lacked a cool head and a football brain to stand up and sort them out. That invited the Roar back into the game, and they took their opportunities, ultimately making the ‘Nix pay.

So that’s the first key area that let us down, the second was our overall defensive play. Now I’m not a huge fan of sitting on a one goal lead when you’ve got it, and as I said above, ideally the ‘Nix would show more confidence and keep taking the game to their opponents when they are ahead. Even when they do that though, there will be periods when the opposition has them pinned back and they will have to deal with sustained pressure. Last night, this area of their game let them down. The Roar midfielders had far too much time in the final third to pick and choose a pass and their strikers had too many holes to move into.

While we had Tim Brown and Jon McKain occupying their usual shielding positions in front of the back four, they weren’t as effective as they have been for the majority of the season. The reason for this was that as a unit, the defencive players were not proactive enough with their closing down. When you are defending, it is useful to think in terms of the lines across the pitch. Obviously Glen Moss in goal is the very last line, then you have the four defenders forming the second line, then in Wellington’s case, Brown and McKain form a third, with the other midfielders, Ferrante in particular, getting back to help out too.

These lines each have their own jobs too. The central defenders each mark one of the opposition strikers (if there are two) and the full backs mark the opponent’s wingers. The two defensive midfielders for Wellington would then be looking to pick up the central attacking midfielders as they surge forwards with the ball. When the opponents are in possession, the defenders have to keep tight to their men, to prevent the ball from being played into them too easily, and this to an extent, was done last night.

Where the ‘Nix were let down though was the work of McKain and Brown in countering the attacking threat of the oncoming midfielders, with Matt McKay in particular a threat. The problem was, that though the line was in place, it wasn’t flexible enough. When one of the oncoming midfielders has the ball in his possession, his marker close him down, and get tight to him, to limit his options on the ball. The other midfielders do not have to be tightly marked because if the attackers are covered, there are no options for them, but the man in possession must be pressed.

This did not happen sharply enough for the ‘Nix and so the Queensland players had too much time to pick a pass through into their front men, despite the best efforts of Dodd and Durante. Some may criticise Durante for giving away two free kicks that led to two goals, but I don’t think that’s fair. They were under constant pressure and when the ball is so often played into the feet of your man on the edge of the box, all they have to do is flick it past you and throw themselves to the ground and often the referee is slightly conned. Yes, there was contact, but it was not really a challenge from Durante, just clever play from the attacker, playing for the free kick, and they were quite soft free kicks (and a very harsh sending off for Durante).

These diagrams should hopefully illustrate what I mean with the closing down. Obviously the black dots represent the Phoenix players, and the orange are Queensland:

bad closing down
This is how not to do it. You see the black dots standing off the attacking midfielders, which means that the man on the ball has lots of options, he can play it to almost all of his team mates (the red lines indicate the possible passes, the dotted one is a speculative through ball onto the run of the attacker shown by the dotted blue line). Yet when we look again to see that the Phoenix midfielder has closed the man on the ball down, it becomes a very different picture:

good closing down
As we see here, the red lines indicating the passes that are open have been severely reduced. He could perhaps feed it into his winger but he is being closely marked and otherwise he must simply go sideways or backwards. As soon as the ball is played across to the other midfielder, the other Phoenix midfielder must put pressure on and the one who is currently closing down should drop back to keep from allowing a triangle to develop around him. But you see how effectively just that little movement can be in shutting down the options. If this had been done, the ball into the strikers feet is much more difficult and so Durante would not have been left having to deal with his man with his back to goal, which was what ultimately cost the Phoenix.

Overall then I think that the ‘Nix didn’t perform too badly on the whole. When they did get the ball down and play it around they looked dangerous, and caused Queensland problems, scoring two and Hearfield missed a couple of half chances. But they simply did not do it often enough, even though they were handed a great start by a fortunate own goal. If Herbert can improve the mentality of the squad an enable them to kill off a game, as well as tightening up the work of the defensive unit, Wellington will become a far more competitive team.

To an extent they had the same problem after going ahead early against the Mariners last week, as they sat back and simply absorbed a mass of Central Coast pressure. The defending was better on that occasion, but if they had had the confidence to keep taking the game to the Mariners then it would have been a far more comfortable victory, and they would have probably picked up a few more goals.

It was a disappointing night for the Phoenix, to lose so late and in the manner that they did especially, when they had seemed well worth a draw, despite being dominated by the Roar for long periods. Herbert will know that his side could have taken the three points though, and he will be heartened by some aspects of the performance. They are still in with a play off shout, though few more slip ups can be afforded, and if they can improve the aspects of their game I have talked about, I think far fewer will occur.

Wellington Phoenix 1-0 Central Coast Mariners: Match Reaction
19.12.08

Delight for Durante, despair for the Mariners.

Delight for Durante, despair for the Mariners.

After a great run of form, Wellington came into this game off the back of a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Adelaide and a hugely frustrating home draw with Perth last time out. Going into the business end of the season and with a play off place still very much to play for, Ricki Herbert will be delighted with the response of his players.

They came out of the blocks fast, immediately looking to get forward and make something happen, with Bertos hitting the flanks and putting a good ball into the box. The danger was dealt with, but soon enough, the ‘Nix were coming back again, the ball played into the right hand channel where Bertos again managed to get a yard on the defender before whipping a ball into the box. This one was beautifully flighted into the back post, and Shane Smeltz drifted expertly away from his ball-watching marker to find himself with acres of space to nod an easy header past the Mariners ‘keeper.

Inside two minutes the Phoenix were ahead, a festive crowd were delighted and it looked set to be a cracking game. Conceding a goal often has a habit of waking a team up though, and the Mariners certainly got their act together from that point on. In fact, the game changed completely after the opening ‘Nix salvo, with Central Coast seizing the majority of possession and, at times, laying siege to the Phoenix goal.

Indeed, I am not even going to attempt to describe or mention all or any of the Mariners various attacks, simply because they were so numerous. They enjoyed a lot of possession, and when Wellington did dispossess the attacking players, they never really managed to keep hold of the ball for any length of time.

It was a stellar defensive display though. For a start, the Mariners are the leading scorers in this season’s competition and their front line of Caceres and Matt Simon proved a constant threat to the ‘Nix defence with their strength and power. A creative midfield usually gives those danger men ample support, but it was credit to the Wellington defence and midfield that they managed to limit the amount of clear cut chances the Mariners were able to produce.

It seemed as if they had perhaps decided to get at the Mariners midfielders as they entered the final third of the pitch, to really prevent them getting any time on the ball to make things happen. Brown and McKain in the holding midfield roles were their usual combative selves in that area, but when the ball got through them, Muscat and Lochead in particular got straight up and snapped at the heels of the invading attackers, often making good tackles and snuffing out that particular attack.

Unfortunately, when the ball was won and played up the park, it just didn’t stick. Shane Smeltz worked tirelessly chasing down the Mariners defence and hoping to force a mistake, but it really showed how the defencive efforts were calling all hands to the pump because rarely were any real numbers able to get forward and support him. This makes the defencive performance all the more impressive because for long periods of the game, there was simply no respite for the Wellington players.

Corner after corner and cross after cross was slung in towards the strikers, but more often than not it was Durante or Dodd who got their heads to the ball. Dodd returned in place of Sigmund (absent presumably for injury as I didn’t think he was suspended but may well be wrong?) and showed how important he is in the aerial department for us, with Muscat his usual terrier like self never giving the opponents time to breathe, let alone get past him – it was good to see him back in form after what I thought was a below par showing last week.

All in all the Mariners will feel very hard done by going away with no points. They had the lions share of possession and at times it really did feel like a matter of when and not if a goal was coming for them. Special praise must be reserved for Glen Moss though, who literally kept us in the game with a number of heroic saves, throwing himself at the feet of attackers and reacting almost impossibly fast to save with his legs from point blank range too. At times it was reminiscent of last season, when he heroically kept us in games we had no right to be in (though to compare this defence to that one would be HUGELY unfair), and makes you really wonder why Ricki didn’t bring him straight back after his injury and question how much impact being left on the bench had on his decision to join Melbourne next season. I think he is much better than Paston and a big loss.

This is a big win for the Phoenix though, in terms of the season as a whole. After a slight dip in the last two games, it was important to try and get back to winning ways to keep us in with a shout of making the top four. And this win lifts us to level with the Mariners on 22 points, at time of writing just two behind the leaders, but they do have two games in hand. Nevertheless, we now look very much closer to the top than the bottom and that can only mean progress. With a good lump of the remaining fixtures at home, Ricki will know that if he can turn the Ring of Fire into a fortress for the season’s run-in, they will be there or there abouts when the final positions are assumed.

The most pleasing thing about today’s game for me was the spirit and resilience amongst the players. The Mariners are a very good side, they showed that with a successful season last time out and are doing well again this time. They are perhaps a better side than Wellington, but the Phoenix players simply didn’t let them play and worked incredibly hard for themselves and each other. To see the transformation between tonight’s defencive heroics and last season’s frequent capitulations is incredible, and goes to show what a solid foundation can do for a team. Hopefully they take a feeling of pride and confidence from this hard fought but not undeserved win into the end of season run-in.

Man of the match for me today goes to Mossy. There were plenty of heroics. the entire defence was nigh on impenetrable and Brown and McKain deserve credit too. Bertos looked dangerous with his running but too often gave the ball away really, heaping pressure back on us, and Smeltz got the all important goal and worked very hard to try and form a first line of defence. But Moss made some outstanding saves on the few occasions the defence was breached and for that, he is our real match winner.
Man of the Match: Glen Moss.

Wellington Phoenix 1-1 Perth Glory: Match Report
13.12.08

not so much.

Brown's chuffed, Velaphi: not so much.

This was a game of quite critical importance for both sides, with both ideally looking for a win to kick start a play off push with the end of the season now in sight. Naturally a draw is the most frustrating result for both sides, but it was ultimately the fair one. Perhaps due to their being aware of the significance of the game, neither set of players showed their best form, and the game struggled for any kind of consistency or fluidity, not helped by a referee who simply refused to let the game flow. Yes, there were some niggly challenges going in, but both sides were doing it and neither was complaining so let it flow man, let it flow.

From the off, both teams struggled for any sort of rhythm to their passing which led to a scrappy encounter, with possession changing hands rapidly. The first half was almost entirely unmemorable, and to be honest I mean that literally because I can actually not remember anything specific that happened. Considering these two teams are the worst two defensively in the league, it was perhaps surprising that the defences dominated proceedings, with few clear cut chances, and I must say I thought Jon McKain was excellent in his holding midfield roll, and di an excellent job of breaking up the connection between Glory’s midfield and their dangerous front men.

The second half was more lively, mostly thanks to the attacking endeavour shown by the Glory who looked the better, and certainly more dangerous side for long periods. Having said that, the ‘Nix came out of the blocks very quickly, forcing a corner within seconds of the restart, but it came to nothing. Perth’s passing game clicked into gear a bit more neatly then, and Rukavytsya’s pace especially was looking like it might bring about the breakthrough that the game deserved.

As it happened, it was a break down the right hand side. with the pacey frontman involved that did liven things up a bit, with Sekulovski (I think) then found in space on the left hand side (the main example of a disapponting outing for Manny Muscat), the winger’s shot parried by Glen Moss fell straight to Ruavytsya, who somehow managed to find the crossbar with an all but open goal in front of him, as the Wellington defence breathed a sigh of relief.

That sparked a bit more life in the ‘Nix and we saw some urgency creep into them as if they’d suddenly realised that they needed to work for a win and that it wouldn’t just present itself. Naturally then, the opportunity to take the lead did then present itself, with some tragic Glory defending giving Smeltz a golden chance to add to his tally for the season. His initial shot was smothered by the impressive Tando Velaphi who got off his line incredibly quickly, but as the ball fell kindly to Smeltz once again, he had only two backtracking defenders to avoid from six yards, but catching the dropping ball on the volley, he too missed the gaping net and found only it’s crossbar, as the Glory defenders this time gasped down some relieving air.

The game then returned to it’s edgy state of affairs, before the deadlock was finally broken on 76 minutes, as a ball into the box wasn’t properly dealt with by the Phoenix and a knockdown fell nicely for Eugene Dadi who showed good technique to make no mistake in firing past Glen Moss. Suddenly the Phoenix team looked heartbroken, though in fairness it was little more than the Glory deserved at that point, with their general endeavour more deserving of three points than the Phoenix’s fractured attacks.

Thankfully the goal brought the ‘Nix out of their slumber and from the concession of the goal, the Phoenix looked a cut above the Glory, and should really have gone on to win the game. Daniel, introduced just before the Glory goal seemed able to cut through the midfield at will and numerous good moves down the wings lacked only a calm head an intelligent cut back, with Bertos the main culprit for simply poking a rushed ball straight at defenders. The deserved equaliser came soon enough though, as with about six minutes to go, the ball dropped to Daniel who curled a precise shot towards the far corner, and while Velaphi got a hand to it, he could only tip it onto the obliging head of Tim Brown, who nodded into the empty net.

1-1 and now Perth must have feared they would end up with no points at all, with a suddenly lively Phoenix team surging forwards at every opportunity. Really they should have won the game too, with Brown himself missing a couple of opportunities that might have ended better and Velaphi making a spectacular save from a well struck Leo Bertos shot that looked destined for the top corner. In the end though, a draw was a fair result. Neither side produced what they are truly capable of, and while Perth looked the better side over the game as a whole, the Phoenix burst into life in the final ten minutes – what a different game it would have been if they had played like that for ninety.

Of course the draw was the result that frustrated both sides too, and a point for each doesn’t really help either in their push for a top four place come the end of the season. If anything, Perth may now face an almost impossible struggle with 16 points, while Wellington on 19 move within one of the top four, but have played a game more. One thing is for certain, and that is that it will be a tight run in and will go to the wire. Ricki Herbert must hope that his team’s league campaign ends up resembling today’s performance, with a stuttery first two thirds replaced by a storming finish.

Man of the matcg today is a difficult one to pick: Sigmund was his usual dependable self up until he went off, McKain was solid again and Brown chipped in with another goal to compliment his defensive work. Daniel really impressed in the short time he was given and surely merits a starting place next time, but for me I will reward Tony Lochead with my accolade this week. He was solid defensively and got forward regularly to cause problems for the Glory defence. He showed how effective he can be as an attacking option with some dangerous crosses. and on a day when the rest of the team played more fluidly, he could have been utilised more. He needs to make sure in future that he does not get pinned back because when free to roam forward, he looks twice the player he does in his own half.
Man of the Match: Tony Lochead.

Adelaide United 6-1 Wellington Phoenix: Match Reaction
06.12.08

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. That didn’t go quite to plan really did it? It is almost as if the past three games haven’t actually happened, it was all a dream and we have just woken up to the nightmare reality of a six one thrashing. It was all there to play for for the ‘Nix players, with a joint second place spot up for grabs. But they fell spectacularly at this hurdle, as they seem to do every time against Adelaide, somehow, we just cannot seem to play against them at all.

In fairness to the reds, they played very well. They played with a high tempo, constantly pressing the Phoenix players in possession, and when they themselves had the ball, moved it quickly around, playing nice football and looking comfortable on the ball. And almost as if they had read my article on Brazilians in the A-League earlier in the week, it was Adelaide’s three Brazilian players Cristiano, Cassio and Diego that did a lot of the damage.

This isn’t a match report as I usually write them because I can’t bear to re-create the six goals that went past us again, and because there is no real need of one. A match report is to tell the story of a game, but the story of this game is made clear by the scoreline. Wellington were poor, Adelaide were great, and so the one outclassed the other. Instead this will be something of an analysis of Wellington’s prospects from here. It is by no means panic stations, but a result like that is going to take some picking up from.

Worryingly last night we saw the recurrence of the sort of defensive frailties that plagued us last season, but which had been all but vanquished by our almost entirely new look back line. In this match though I think the problem was the willingness of the Adelaide midfielders to get forward and overload our defence. With Dodd and Cristiano up front, you then had Diego, Cassio and Mullen piling forwards too, plus the full backs getting up there too, with Jamieson particularly impressive. This meant that the barrier in front of the ‘Nix defence of Brown and McKain  was overloaded and didn’t achieve much, though not out of a lack of effort on those boys parts. If anything they needed more support from Bertos and Fred in particularly, as Ferrante was his usual busy self.

Another major problem was the ‘Nix’s abject failure to keep the ball for any reasonable amount of time. It was blindingly obvious to all watching from within 10 minutes that we needed someone with a calm head to step in and just get us keeping possession. As it was, whenever Bertos got the ball he tried to beat everyone but failed to beat anyone, and whenever anyone else got the ball, there just weren’t any options other than to lump it toward Shane Smeltz. That meant that the defence and defensive midfielders got very little respite and were under almost constant siege.

One of the things that caused this inability to keep the ball was the lack of fluidity in movement throughout the side. The afore mentioned Bertos was far more isolated in a striker’s sort of area than he has been in previous weeks, which made him far easier to mark out of the game. In addition Tony Lochead, after a great performance full of attacking endeavour last week, seemed to have a bungee cord strapped around his waist, the other ends stuck to the corner flag and Paston’s (and Moss’s) left goal post. Yes, I know we were under a lot of pressure, but the few times when we did get hold of the ball a little, we needed these players to show for the ball, so we could keep it, build it, and try and get some sustained pressure at the other end.

I was a bit disappointed with Manny Muscat last night too. Defensively he is very sound, although he gave away far too many free kicks last night and I have no idea how he didn’t get booked, but attacking wise he didn’t bring much to the table. Each time he got the ball he seemed to just lump it up towards where Bertos was hiding behind his marker, which inevitably just handed possession back to Adelaide. Now that we have lost, and lost quite resoundingly, Herbert can allow himself to make some changes to the side, and for me, Karl Dodd has to be brought back in in place of Muscat, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly because he is just so damned solid. He is 100% committed and more often than not will make the challenge when he needs to. Secondly, the back line of Dodd, Sigmund, Durante and Lochead that we saw a few weeks ago looked like a very cohesive unit and as they are our four best defenders should be playing. Also though, Dodd seems to be the defence’s marshal when it comes to corners and set pieces. Without him last night, the marking was poor and aerial challenges were lackadaisical. For the first half especially every set piece was a major threat and we looked like conceding every time, indeed only some fine saves from Paston kept us in it before half time.

I think the most important thing that needs to be done though, is to simply put that game out of the players’ minds. Yes it was an awful performance and an embarrassing result, but they know that already. On Monday Ricki will go over a few key things from the game, but then all mention of it should be put aside. It should be disregarded as one of those days, so that the players do not let it affect their confidence. After being on such a good run of form, they should have been full of confidence going into the game, but that didn’t seem to be the case. What needs to be done now is that they need to rebuild the confidence. Accept it was a bad result but focus on the good ones of the previous three games.

A blow in confidence now could lead to a run of poor form and in this crucial stage of the season that is the very last thing we need. Last season we played well and picked up some results in the middle segment of the season but then plummeted towards the end of the campaign and ended up with a bottom of the table finish that we didn’t really deserve for much of the season. From this point in this season, that could again happen if we lose confidence and focus and slip to a couple of defeats. If however we can get back to winning ways in our next match against Perth at home, then we can forget all about this and continue our push towards the top four come the end of the season.

Either way, I think a match like this is always going to be a turning point in a season. Whether Ricki can use it to his advantage to get some fresh inspiration and effort out of his side or whether he lets it affect the negatively will say much about his talents as a motivator and man-manager. I think that we as fans also need to get behind the team too. Don;t give them too much stick for the performance, even though they deserve it. Let’s get behind the team and inspire them to bounce back from that performance with a big win of our own against Perth.

Wellington Phoenix 2-1 Melbourne Victory
28.11.08

Smeltz enjoys his goal.

Smeltz enjoys his goal.

The first Friday night game in Wellington this season proved to be a bit of a scorcher, as many had predicted, though there wasn’t the goal glut that some had hoped for, the football on show was always dynamic and fast paced and in the end the home side emerged deserving victors over the oft inappropriately named Victory.

The game started brightly, with both sets of players putting together some good passes and each team almost trading blows in an attempt to gain a strangle hold over proceedings. While to me it was looking like the Phoenix were the more comfortable of the two sides and looked to have more of a threat about them, it was a long range snapshot from Pondeljak that first threatened, Phoenix ‘keeper Mark Paston diving almost in slow motion to keep it out which made it look more dangerous than it probably was.

This effort on goal spurred the away side on though, and moments later a lovely whipped ball in was met powerfully by Allsopp, but he didn’t get any accuracy on the header as it flew straight towards the centre-top of Paston’s goal, the ‘keeper (complete with scruffy mo-beard combo) again making a reasonably simple save look flashy as he tipped over. The ball was swung in and unconvincingly cleared by a Wellington defence who already looked a bit overwhelmed by the Victory’s set piece talents, and Kevin Muscat hit a shot as it dropped out, whichPaston saved well, resulting in another corner.

This time Melbourne made it count, with a flat corner being drifted in to be attacked by Ney Fabiano whose header bounced down then came back up off the post where it sat up beautifully for the arriving Danny Allsopp to nod past a helpless Paston from point blank range. The home crowd were a bit shocked, after a cagey but entertaining opening, Melbourne had made their first real pressure pay and suddenly after 22 minutes Wellington’s hot streak of form looked in doubt.

They didn’t have to worry for long though, as the Phoenix restarted play and surged up the other end where a free kick was awarded on the right hand flank. Whipped in by Leo Bertos, it was the Victory’s turn to partially clear but this time Tim Brown latched onto it, doing well to get his foot over a bouncing ball which was then lashed off the turf and crashed into the net, to give Wellington an equaliser only a minute after going behind. The mood in the stadium returned and I for one started to wonder if we would in fact see a glut of goals.

A minute later I was almost sure of it, as a huge lapse in concentration from Pondeljak saw him attempt to play a back pass from near the half way line, but he under hit it enormously. This set Shane Smeltz through on goal, and I would have put money on the instinctive goal scorer to surge forward and bury it past a retreating ‘keeper. Instead he showed a moment of hesitation as it looked like he was tempted to try and curl it overth e ‘keeper from 30 yards, then realised that was the wrong option and attempting to close in on goal like he should have done immediately. Unfortunately his hesitation had given the defenders chance to get back and the goldenopportunity came to nothing.

That scare forced Melbourne to recover themselves and both teams took stock a little for the remainder of the first half, neither wanting to give a second goal away, but both constantly alert to the others mistakes, desperate to seize on them if they could. Thus we reached half time at 1-1 which was a fair reflection of a top half of A-League football, one of the best I can remember. What was most promising to me was the way that the Phoenix looked comfortable in possession, and easily matched the class and passing ability of the current league leaders – very promising signs.

The second half began and Phoenix’s bright play continued as they pushed the Victory onto the back foot a little. The first chance of the half came after a nice sweeping move by the impressive Bertos whose cross/shot was only parried by the ‘keeper and fell invitingly to an arriving Lochead, who smashed a fizzing shot wide of the post. Lochead was having his best game this season for the ‘Nix, getting forward often and aiding the flowing passing from a top notch midfield, where Fred,Ferrante and Bertos were showing their attacking talents.

Soon though the ‘Nix got a more direct, individual sort of goal as Smeltz made up for his failure to capitalise on his earlier opportunity, by making a goal for himself, and what a goal it was. Fred played a straight ball intoSmeltz’s feet where he was with his back to goal, half way inside the Victory’s half. Defender Michael Thwaite, pushing up to prevent him turning, was completely taken out of the game as Smeltz stepped to meet the ball and flicked it around him first time, spinning after it and exploding away from the stranded stopper.

He carried on his surging run as the other defenders attempted to close him down, but as he reached the edge of the box he put his foot through the ball to send it smashing into the top right hand corner of the net. It was a top class goal, and the only thing that impeded my enjoyment of it was the knowledge that we won’t have him next season. I’ve tried to do it justicewith this description, but I strongly suggest checking it out on the news or YouTube or something if you haven’t seen it.

The goal finally woke the away side up for the first time in the second half as they were spurred on to try and find an equaliser. They out together a number of promising attacks but were thwarted in the main by Ben Sigmund, whose great from continues, and Andrew Durante who showed on his return to the side (in place of the suspended KarlDodd) that he is a top defender, and has given Herbert a big selection problem for the next game, with three centre backs on top of their game at the moment.

In the past the Phoenix have brought pressure onto themselves by sitting back too much when they have taken the lead and inviting teams to break them down. Today though, in linewith their confident mentality and obvious comfort on the ball, they were quite willing to keep taking the game to the league leaders, and it almost paid off on a couple of occasions as they threatened to extend their lead. Smeltz looked most likely to acheive this, as he made another cutting run inside the Melbourne defence but this time his shot from 20 yards flew over the bar.

As both sides pushed for another goal, Wellington to kill the game and Melbourne to save it, the contest turned into quite a cut and thrustaffair, and was captivating to watch. With about 15 minutes to go, Archie Thompson wasted the Victory’s best chance after Hernandez’s fresh legs had worked an opening for him, he could only fire straight at MarkPaston, who held onto the ball as we let go of a collective sigh of relief. The next big opportunity fell to the Phoenix, with great work from Fred opening up space in the middle, and he then whipped in a low cross which Leo Bertos completely failed to connect with inside the box, which would have eased the nerves of the Yellow Fever.

Still, they didn’t look to nervous, dancing around baring their skin (shirts off if we’re ahead with 10 to go), and in the end, though Melbourne threw everything forward in the final minutes, they just couldn’t penetrate a solid Phoenixback line , and the home side held on to take a deserved three points, that also completed their best ever run of games in the A-League, giving them a third win on the bounce for the first time.

All in all it was a performance Ricki will be delighted with. They looked a different set of players to the ones who nervously stumbled past a defeated Jets team last week, full of confidence and attacking optimism. If Herbert can keep them playing like that, when they more than matched the league leaders, then they have every chance of making the top four. Picking a man of the match today is difficult, as it was great teamperfromance. Smeltz scored a stunner and always looked a threat, Fred was always lively, Lochead gave us a great extra dimension with his attacking play, and Sigmund and Durante were excellent.

However, I give my award to Tim Brown and Jon McKain to share. Though of course Brown scored and excellent and crucial goal, these two players deserve the recognition for their tireless defensive work. It is testament to their contribution that despite Melbourne havingboth one of the best attacking line ups in the league and a decent amount of possession, they did not create many clear cut chances. They are 100% committed to the cause and made brilliant tackle after brilliant tackle, breaking up the opposition’s play and helping to kick start our attacks.
Men of the match: Tim Brown and Jon McKain.

Wellington Phoenix 2-0 Newcastle Jets: Match Summary
23.11.08

Well this turned out to be a fiery match indeed, obviously both sets of players knew what was at stake, but it seems that the Newcastle players let their passion get too much for them as Joel Griffiths and Milligan both saw red, effectively handing the game to the Phoenix. Still, it took the home side a while to break through a resilient Jets defence, and Herbert would have hoped for more comfortable and convincing performance against nine men.

The game started as a typical A-League affair, cagey and without many clear cut openings. Probably the Phoenix shaded the best of the opening encounters but never really seemed to get a grip on the game until the major incident of the first half, which was Griffiths’ dismissal. He pretty much volleyed Karl Dodd as if he was the ball sitting up nice on the edge of the box. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and the only thing that flew anywhere was the red card out of the referees top pocket, and rightly so.

After the dismissal, the Jets looked understandably a bit unsettled for the remainder of the half, and their coaching staff would have been relieved to see their team come in on level terms, though in fairness the ‘Nix didn’t look like taking the game by the scruff of the neck, and though they were enjoying a bit more comfortable possession, couldn’t seem to make use of it.

Half time came and the game was heavily tipped in the Phoenix’s favour, but they would have to show a killer edge to get the three points, with Newcastle likely to come out and defend the second half out, perhaps trying to catch the ‘Nix on the counter, but no doubt they’d be happy with a point from this situation. Herbert made no changes at half time, sticking with the team that beat Sydney minus Hearfield, sacrificed for Fred, who had shown he had a great touch but hadn’t been dazzling by any means so far.

Commendably, Newcastle actually came out, against all the odds, on the attack from the beginning of the second half. They stuck with three at the back, looking to keep the pressure on Wellington and hoping that their three central defenders could contain Smeltz and Bertos. It looked like it may pay off too, as they started the brighter of the two sides and someone who didn’t know better may have thought Wellington were a man down. They even made a couple of half chances, but didn’t really test Paston in the Wellington goal.

Then disaster struck for the Jets, with Milligan suffering a rush of blood to the head and lunging in high with his studs up for a challenge with Ferrante (I think). He didn;t get the player (luckily) and even got a bit of the ball, but it was a viscious and reckless challenge with intent, and the referee was once again justified in his non-hesistant production of the red card. Suddenly the ‘Nix had been gifted a two man advantage and should be able to stroll to three points… surely?

As it turned out, the scoreline looked comfortable, but it wasn’t. While enjoying the lion’s share of possession, Wellington huffed and puffed but rarely created anything of note – Fred was released by a clever Bertos back heel but took a needless touch and was shut down when he should have done better which was the only real chance of note. At the other end, Tarek Elrich was a constant threat, picking up the ball and just running at the ‘Nix defenders, scaring them to death and drawing constant fouls, which was just silly from the Wellington players.

Finally Herbert showed some balls and went for it a bit, removing Muscat (with McKain dropping back to complete the back four and Brown anchoring the midfield on his own) with Hearfield who was thrown up top. A few minutes later and Daniel replaced the tiring Fred, who had shown flashes but nothing too special on his debut, but if he can get up to speed there’s no doubt he will be a danger for the other A-League defences. These two changes made the difference, Hearfield adding to Bertos as a willing runner with pace, and Daniel’s flamboyant creativity finally creating holes in the Jets defence.

Eventually the ball broke after good work down the right hand side to Hearfield, who showed Lochead how to cross a ball with a delightfully whipped near post delivery, and Smeltz darted past his marker to flash a header into the near top corner, giving the Jets ‘keeper no chance. The ‘Nix had a lead that they did deserve, but should have been able to take sooner, and now would surely go on to take the points.

Puzzlingly, they showed a huge lack of intelligence by deciding to sit back and invite the Jets on to them with only a one goal lead. Now the Jets were only nine by this point and definitely tiring, but all it would take was one slip and the advantage could easily be wiped out, which almost happened on a few occasions. Surely they should have had enough sense to keep taking the game to the depleted opposition, knock the ball about and make them do the work. If they keep the ball in the attacking third as they had been doing comfortably, it is far less risky.

Fortunately for the ‘Nix, who never looked comfy with only a one goal lead, more good work down the right hand side from Sigmund found Bertos who whipped a low cross into the six yard box where the impressive Hearfield got a delicate glancing touch that saw the ball nestle into the far corner, and seal the win for the Phoenix, and everyone could breathe a huge sigh of relief. If we hadn’t managed to take the three points in this game it would have been disastrous.

There was to be a touch more drama yet though before celebrations could begin, as the Phoenix’s rare clean sheet came under serious threat after clumsy defending allowed Elrich to wriggle into the penalty area where Dodd clattered him to the ground. Again making the right decision, referee Breese pointed to the spot, and Elrich stepped up to take the shine off of the ‘Nix’s three points in injury time. It was a poor penalty though, struck low to the keepers left with little power or accuracy and Paston made a good save, getting down quickly, and redeeming some slightly dodgy handling from earlier in the game, though he didn’t;t even take this one cleanly. He needs to work on that aspect of his game if he is to succeed as Moss’s successor.

The game was then played out easily from the Phoenix, who take a deserved three points, but it would have been a completely different story if the Jets players had more control over their aggression. As it its, the ‘Nix go level with Queensland on points at least until their game finishes and four clear of Newcastle and Perth, though the Glory can close the gap if they get anything from Queensland in the rounds final fixture.

All in all, Herbert will be satisfied with his three points and rare back to back wins, but will need a much more convincing performance against Melbourne next Friday. I thought Hearfield and Daniel looked the part when they came on and surely put in a claim for a starting spot next week, where perhaps Ferrante could make way for one, though it is unlikely Fred will miss out and Bertos and Smeltz should certainly retain their positions. So Herbert looks to be a bit spoilt for choice in the midfield ranks at the moment, but it is a nice descion to have to make. Hearfield comes close to taking man of the match, but he didn’t quite have long enough, and Bertos was a constant threat all game, so pips him to the honour.
Man of the Match: Leo Bertos.

The Return of the Phoenix:
Wellington Phoenix vs. Newcastle Jets: Match Preview
23.11.08

Well I must apologise to those readers of this site who are mainly interested in the A-League and the Phoenix, I have been rather neglecting my duties to the southern hemisphere of late. This is for a few reasons, firstly, I missed the 1-2 win at Sydney as I was revising for my exam the next day, and second, there hasn’t been a game since then. Even without any Wellington games though, the club have been keeping themselves pretty busy, and we have a few things to catch up on.

Firstly of course, there was the Sydney game, and by all accounts, what a game! We managed to beat them again, putting in our best performance of the season and looking relatively comfortable for the most part too, with only a piece of tragic goalkeeping from Mark Paston allowing the home side to trouble the scorers. The result leaves us in 6th position, and firmly in touch with the teams above us, so if we can push on and keep the results coming, we may still scrape into the top four and the play offs.

The next big piece of news that i completely ignored at the time was the unveiling of Terry Serepisos’ promised surprised signing. And what a surprise it was, with former A-league winner Fred lured back to this continent as a guest player, on loan from DC United in the MLS. The attacking midfielder looks to be a shrewd acquisition and will hopefully solve the creativity problems that have dogged the Phoenix at times this season. If he can recreate the form he showed in his previous A-League exploits, he will be a real handful, and if the board could negotiate apermanent deal, it would be a huge boost in lieu of the loss of Shane Smeltz from next season.

So one talented attacking midfielder comes in, but it soon proved to be a bit of a revolving door as another one soon left. Leilei Gao has parted company with the Wellington club, with the club citing his failure to settle properly in the area as the main factor in the decision. However, I think most people would agree that the Chinese player had been having real trouble motivating himself to play for the team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ricki Herbert had stepped in and had a word, maybe upsetting the player. Still, though he has undeniable talent, he hasn’t delivered on it nearly often enough, and it is good that we can now concentrate on playing a team that is fully committed to the Phoenix cause.

After Smeltz’s announcement that he will no longer be a ‘Nix player next season, I knew the club would be hard at work trying to prevent the exit of any more first team players, but unfortunately, we have also lost our second most important player over the past two seasons, with Glen Moss having agreed a deal to join Melbourne Victory next season. While many will not see this as a huge loss because we have Mark Paston, another able keeper, I must say that I am hugely disappointed.

Personally I regard Moss as a much better ‘keeper than Paston, he is far more consistent and a much better shot stopper, and I can think of only one mistake he has ever made in a Phoenix shirt, while Paston seems to make a lot of errors (see the Sydney game for a prime example). What is even more disappointing is that I think that Moss probably did not even want to leave, but decided it was best for his prospects, due to Herbert refusing to play him in recent weeks. Though he was injured, I think Paston was far less convincing, and Herbert should have brought Moss back once he was fit. It is down to Moss that we had a reasonably respectable first season, as he time and time again kept us in games with heroic displays, and I think Herbert should have rewarded that with a touch more faith in his ‘keeper.

As it is Moss obviously decided that if he wasn’t appreciated here then he may as well take up Melbourne’s offer, and they have got themselves a very good ‘keeper. I wish Mossy the best of luck with Melbourne, as he was a hell of a servant to this club and deserved to be rewarded more so. As it is I am sure we will feel the loss of such a reliable and talented ‘keeper in the future.

On a brighter note, the club has succeeded in securing contract extensions for five of the current first team squad, with Tony Lochead, Tim Brown, Ben Sigmund, Michael Ferrante and Daniel all putting pen to paper on new two year deals. This is good news for the team as they are all players who are committed to the cause and obviously enjoy playing for the club. Hopefully we will soon see other established and important players, such as Karl Dodd, extend their stays too, as we already have our work cut out in the transfer market to try and find a replacement for Smeltzy, and the last thing we need is to lose more players.

So all in all, there has been quite a bit of off field activity during the little break in games, but of course, come 6pm tonight all that will be secondary again, with Newcastle Jets coming to the Ring of Fire, currently sitting one place and one point below the ‘Nix in the table. This means that if we can secure another three points at home we have a great chance to put a bit of gap between us and the Champions, while the other game, between Perth and Queensland will also play a part on where we end up after the conclusion of this round of fixtures.

Playing staff wise, Herbert has pretty much a full squad to choose from, barring long term absentee Vince Lia of course. He also now has Fred to choose from, who will undoubtedly take Gao’s place in the squad, and he has a bit of a selection dilemma in defence to wrestle with too. Andrew Durante was absent for the stunning performance in Sydney, which saw Muscat step in at right back and perform admirably, while Sigmund and Dodd looked dominant in the central partnership. If Herbert is consistent with his previous mantra of not changing a winning side (which probably cost us Moss next season), then he will be forced to leave his captain on the bench, but I don’t know how likely that is.

There is no denying that Durante is a classy player and a good leader, so Herbert will be sorely tempted to bring him back in. I suppose much will come down to how they have been training seeing as there has been such a lengthy gap since the last fixture, and maybe the ‘winning team’ mentality is less effective with that situation in place. Either way, it is a nice position for Herbert to be in, especially after last season’s defencive nightmare, and his main headache now is how to keep the goals coming.

It may well be that Herbert will allow himself to tinker with the side a little, as of course he now has Fred to utilise and seeing as he is only in for six games, it would be a waste not to play him from the start. Mind you whoever would miss out could feel hard done by, but I think if anyone is to, it may be young Troy Hearfield. He put in a good performance against Syndey, but Herbert will know that he has a young and hungry player on the bench to come on and make an impact if he needs him to.

All in all, it promises to be quite a big night for the Phoenix. I’m sure the Ring of Fire will be fuller than usual after Fred’s arrival on the back of an away win, so hopefully the Fever can get behind the team and spur them to what would be a very valuable three points. I shan’t be there unfortunately as I’m back in Nelson for the summer, but I will be watching on TV, and will post a match report sometime after the final whistle. Let’s hope the Phoenix come back with a bang, and I will try and resurrect my A-League coverage for all the Southern Hemispheric readers!

Smeltz goes for Gold…
06.11.08

…Coast United. It’s not about the money. And I’m not bitter. And I genuinely mean that, it was just too good a pun to resist. But yes, Phoenix fans, the news we all dreaded has come through, Smeltz will not be at the Ring of Fire next season, we will be without our only consistent goal threat, and so the work to replace him must start now. But the reaction of some fans to his decision has been a bit out of line in my opinion.

I must admit that initially I, like many fans, was bitter that Shane had decided to leave us for Gold Coast United, and almost was taken in by the suggestion that he should be left to rot on the bench for the rest of the season. Some fans suggested that he has gone purely for the money, and others criticised his disloyalty, as there is no doubt that Ricki Herbert and the Phoenix have resurrected a career that was previously floundering in the English non-league.

But to be honest, once I put a bit of though into it, I realised that this was all a bit childish really. Yes, Shane does owe a lot to the Phoenix and we are upset to see him go. Many fans suggest that he could have gone, but if he was to go, he should at least have gone only to a better league, a better standard of football, a better chance of success and recognition, none of which apply to Gold Coast United (though they are threatening to build a very strong squad, so may outstrip Wellington’s success).

At the end of the day though, I think we should in fact praise Shane for moving to the Gold Coast, because he is doing what is best for his family. And while it is very easy to get all caught up in football and see him as just a player, we have to try and remember that Smeltz, like the rest of us, is a normal human being, and wants to do the best for the ones that he loves. It would have been easy for him to stay in Wellington on the nice contract he was offered (I genuine mean it, it’s not about the money), in a team where he’s the star and where he knows he will be idolised.

But he has chosen to take his family home. He will go to another new club, a club with lots of spending power and thirst for success and will have to prove himself all over again. He will leave his friends in the Phoenix squad, and have to learn to play and get along with new players, and hope that he can score goals there. And I for one, don’t think he will be such a success on the Gold Coast. Because while his record here is undeniably great, he shines so bright because he is surrounded by so much darkness. And so in terms of his career, this could turn out to be a step backwards.

And I’m sure Shane realises this. He has said how much he enjoys his life here and how happy he is, which filled us all with the hope that he would stay. But at the end of the day, it seems that the Gold Coast is the best place for his family and so Shane has taken the difficult decision to relocate. And he should be applauded for this, because family comes first. I think that Shane is a genuinely good bloke, who really loves his time here, and will be sad to leave. And because of that, I think some of the accusations being levelled at him are terrible.

Some have accused him of lying to the club, of leading them (and the fans) on, by saying that he hadn’t made up his mind and that he wanted the speculation to be left to the end of the season. And yes, it would have been good to see the season through and then have him decide, so that he doesn’t have to play with the fans on his back, but realistically, it couldn’t happen. Gold Coast are in the process of building their squad, and they need commitment and definite answers. They could not let Shane think about it until the season ends then turn them down and leave them in the shit. And likewise, Shane didn’t want to miss this opportunioty to do the right thing by dallying and finding that they’d signed someone else instead, In an ideal world, yes, it would all have happened at the end of the season, but in the real world, it was always going to happen this way, and we should accept that.

And because of that, there is the awkward situation of us essentially having a Gold Coast player playing in the Phoenix shirt for the rest of the season. But that is no reason not to play him, and it is certainly no reason to boo him (shame on you if you even consider it). Shane, perhaps more than any other player in the club’s brief existence, has given his all for the Phoenix, and he has endeared himself to the Yellow Fever because of it. That is why we are so bitter to seem him go, but also why he should be treated with respect and admiration for the rest of his time here, and to leave such a potent striker on the bench when we can;t scoe as it is would just be plain idiotic.

So, in all, I hope we all get behind Shane for the rest of the season. Yes, it’s terrible that he’s leaving and I can’t even begin to think how we’ll replace him, but we cannot blame him for doing what is right for his family. In the same situation, we would all do what we think is right for our families too, so we have to remember that Smeltz, like the rest of us, has more to his life than football, even if it doesn’t seem like that at times. So thanks Shane, you’ve lit up what have otherwise been some relatively drab seasons at this club, and I wish you all the happiness with your move and the best of luck with your new club.

Just don’t score against us or I really will be bitter…

The Only Way Is Up…
04.11.08

Well, after the lows of last season, and the highs of pre-season, and amidst great expectations, Wellington Phoenix again find themselves at the bottom of the A-League ladder. Some fans are understandably frustrated, after it seemed we had turned a corner after losing to Perth last time, we have gone and done it again, and look very much back in a bit of a rut. But the blind despair and panic that seem to be filling some fans (“let’s just give up and start building for next season”) is much too premature I believe.

We showed a few weeks ago how quickly things can change. When we beat Sydney, drew with the Jets and beat the Mariners, we were suddenly within touching distance of the top four and everyone was full of optimism, surely we were going to fulfill our promise. Since then of course we have had a disappointing 1-0 home defeat at the hands of the Roar (a game we should have got a point out of at least) and the loss at the weekend to Perth.

So it seems we have come full circle in a way. After a demoralizing defeat to Perth, we had a heart to heart, we reshuffled, and came back rejuvenated, and went on arguably the clubs best run of form ever. Now we’ve just lost to Perth again, and again we need to regroup. We showed last time that we can recover from these lows, and so we know that we can do it again, and all this talk of booing players and giant wooden spoons (which is hilarious) is really a little bit over the top at this stage.

Last time, when we lost to Perth, Ricki’s solution was to consolidate. He reshuffled the back four to something like what we have settled with in the last few games and it worked. He also went for two out and out holding midfielders and that worked too. And it’s still working, and so should be left alone. Where the problem last time was in leaking too many goals, now we simply don’t have any spark, no threat to the opposition defences.

So it’s time for a reshuffle there. Shane Smeltz, to get the obvious out of the way, stays. There is no question there, he offers us so much on the deck and in the ait and is our one proven goalscorer. Some may argue that he may be a bit unsettles by talk of his future, but while he’s contracted to us, we have to play him, simple as that. But, unfortunately for Coveny, he needs a new strike partner. Vaughan has always been a willing runner and he works as hard as anyone, but in my opinion, his number is finally up. When he gets the ball he looks a bit out of depth and doesn’t seem to have the speed of foot to really compete any more. He may retain a place on the bench to provide greater aerial threat if we need it, but I don’t think he should be starting anymore.

The question then, is who should replace him? Kwasnik might be the obvious option but he has looked out of sorts of late and so needs to start showing on the training ground if he is to force himself back into Ricki’s plans, so on that front, we must wait and see. But he, Smeltz and Coveny are our only really experienced attacking options, in terms of all out attackers, so will Ricki look to the young guns?

We’ve got Costa Barbarouses and Greg Draper in that department. Costa has been looked to almost as a saviour in recent weeks by some fans, and while the lad has huge promise and showed flashes against Perth, I don’t think he’s ready yet. I know very little about Draper, as I haven’t seen him play, but he has netted in some of the friendly games so obviously knows the way to goal, but I think he, like Costa, may lack that crucial maturity to really perform consistently.

Perhaps then, it is time to return to the 4-2-3-1 formation that we used in pre-season. This was abandoned at the start of the season when things weren’t going our way, confidence was low and we wanted to sure the team up, and pose a more physical threat, which saw Covs come in up front. But now the defence is looking very solid, I think we could give this another try. Smeltz has shown that he can work as a target man on his own up front and can hold the ball up, and so I think that to play three creative players could be the answer.

Unfortunately for ‘Nix fans, Leilei Gao has looked very lazy in recent weeks. He never had the best of work rates, but that was OK because defending isn’t his job. But recently he has been going missing from games entirely for large periods, and that is something we can’t afford. He needs a kick up the arse, and so should be left on the bench for the next match. If his opportunity to put himself in the window for the European transfer he craves is put under threat, it might make him realise he has to work for it.

On the plus side, Leo bertos has come back in and looked good (aside from the shocking miss against Roar of course) and so he is a dead certain starter down one wing. I think it’s also time to bring Daniel back into the fold. He was our talisman last season, and though like Gao, can go missing, he has been on the bench long enough to have a genuine desire to take his chance. He clearly loves Wellington and always gives his all, and if he can recreate the form of last season, will be a real threat again, and may provide the ammunition that Smeltz has been searching for.

The third slot is the tricky one. At the start of the season I hoped we’d see Gao, Daniel and Bertos in there, but having all three firing at once just hasn’t happened yet. Instead, I think we may want to give Troy Hearfield another chance. I for one, was impressed by the lad in the early part of the season, he was always willing to run, had a decent touch, and wasn’t afraid to have a shot, which we have been lacking recently. Whether he is capable of performing consistently for a full ninety a don’t know, but if we have Gao and Barbarouses on the bench, either of them should be able to come on and make an impact if we need them to.

One other option that I haven’t yet mentioned is the possibility of bringing in another striker. It was much discussed at the start of the season, and I think we would certainly benefit from it, if we can get someone with a bit of quality. For me, Jeremy Brockie would be a good signing, as he’s strong, quick, and a proven finisher, and would be an excellent foil for Smeltz. Whether this is a viable option for the club financially, I don’t know, and so we cannot count on it, but it is something I think Ricki and Terry might want to consider.

So while last time we hit a bit of a rut, and the depths of a defeat to Perth, we moved away from the 4-2-3-1 that had worked for us in pre-season, I think that this time, now we have come full circle again, I think it might be time to switch back. The defence looks very solid for the most part, bar the odd individual errors which plague all teams in the league, and though I’d like to see Moss back in goal, Ricki doesn’t need to mess around with his back seven. The front four are the problem as we just can’t score goals, and so he needs to reshuffle his pack again. I think the 4-2-3-1 gives us the speed, and creativity that we have been lacking in recent weeks, and it would, in my eyes be a positive step from Herbert if he brought it back.

So don’t despair Phoenix fans. Yes, we are bottom, and yes, it hurts, but we’ve been in this position before and we have recovered before. What we need to do is get behind the team, show them that they have our support and encourage them. If we get on their backs it is only going to further decrease morale and that is the last thing we need. We are bottom of the league but the only way is up, and I for one, believe that the Phoenix can once again rise from the ashes, and claim the Glory…

Perth Glory 2-0 Wellington Phoenix: Match Summary
02.11.08

The whistle has literally just blown for full time as I sit down to write this. Usually I give it a little while before writing my match reports, but to be honest, I’m worried that if I leave it even five minutes, I’ll forget everything about the match I just watched, which probably tells you that it wasn’t much of a show.

For the most part, the Phoenix looked reasonably comfortable on the ball, and in the middle of the pitch, they pretty much had the rub of the green from first to last. That the scoreline was 2-0 in favour of Perth then, suggests that something went wrong at either end of the pitch, and that is indeed largely the case.

The defending from Durante for the first Perth goal was questionable at best, with a long ball played forward and Rukavtsya putting him under pressure with a raised foot, the Wellington captain all but shirked the header and allowed the ball to simply bounce past him, and Rukavtsya’s pace did the rest, getting him through one-on-one with Paston, and tucking it neatly away. While Paston cannot be blamed for the goal, as no ‘keeper should be blamed for a one-on-one beating them, I would like to see Moss back in the fold, as he has proved time and again that he can pull of saves where he has no right to, and indeed, one v. ones are almost his forte.

Still, though a goal in the 14th minute is never a positive, it left the Phoenix with plenty of time to get back in the game and should have served as something of a wake up call. But they continued to be entirely toothless in attack, Gao cutting inside and whipping a shot over the bar, which proved to be the only real further attacking threat in the half, and indeed, Gao’s only real contribution to the game. Don’t be surprised to see him dropped to the bench against Sydney, as his heart really doesn’t seem to be in it for the Phoenix at the moment.

Half time came and those of us hoping to see the ineffectual Coveny (and Gao) replaced were dissapointed, as Herbert elected to stick with the same eleven that had provided absolutely no threat in the first half. But of course, if you keep doing things as you always did, you’ll keep getting what you always got, and that was very much the case for the first fifteen minutes of the second half, with an entirely forgettable period of football from both teams.

Eventually, Eugene Dadi entered the fray for Perth after an injury to one of their midfielders, and this perhaps reminded Ricki that he too had options on the bench as Barbarouses was finally introduced for Coveny, and Michael Ferrante came on for Gao. Both instantly looked lively and Wellington began to have more of the ball and more attacking impetus. Unfortunately, it seemed that Costa was deployed more on the right side of midfield, rather than being a straight swap for Coveny, and so a substitution that could have provided us with real pace up front, actually turned out to be almost a defensive one, as we switched from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1.

Pace up front was exactly what payed off for the Glory moments later, as Dadi’s clever first time ball set Rukavtsya free through the middle, as he easily outpaced the out of form Lochead and blasted a composed finish past the once-again-helpless Paston. Two nil, and surely the game was in the bag, but if we know one thing about football, it is that it is hugely unpredictable, as Tottenham fans will tell you after their two amazing late come backs this week.

Unfortunately, Herbert has none of the reckless determination of Harry Redknapp, and instead of sacrificing a holding midfielder (the damage, at 2-0, is already done after all) for another attacking player, he brought off Bertos, the one player who had actually been able to beat his man and provide any ammunition at all for Smeltz. The introduction of Daniel was a welcome one, with the Brazilian looking sharp and eager, but one can’t help but feel it would have been prudent to combine Bertos and Daniel if Wellington seriously fancied getting anything from the game.

As it was, Perth defended out the rest of the game in relative comfort, with Jamie Harnwell, who moved from attack to defence when Dadi came on, beating Smeltz to everything in the air, and only a few reasonable long distance efforts from Ferrante giving the Perth ‘keeper anything to think about at all. So Perth took all three points in comfort, without even having to dominate possession, and questions must be asked of Herbert and his team.

Gao and Coveny were almost entirely absent from the game while on the field, and all three substitutes contributed far more in their briefer stints on the park. Barbarouses has the pace that, if deployed alongside Smeltz instead of on the wing, would really add another dimension to the attack. Daniel at his best (and he does look sharp) offers everything that Gao can’t be bothered to offer at the moment, and Ferrante’s passing is still looking as good as it was in the second half of last season when he found his form, and so surely Ricki may have to make some changes.

He won’t want to change his back four, that much is certain, but maybe McKain or Brown could be sacrificed for Ferrante, who is still a combative tackler but offers far more as a play-maker, and Daniel and Costa could be introduced as direct replacements for Gao and Coveny, as they look like they need a sharp wake up call if they are to reignite their seasons. So all in all, another unsatisfying run-out for the ‘Nix, who find themselves at the foot of the table once again, which is unacceptable given the undoubted quality in the side.

When it comes to man of the match for today’s game, really Rukavtsya deserves it, and in most respectable match reports he will rightly be given it. But for me, the award goes to Michael Ferrante, for the sheer audacity of his moustache. He and Durante are obviously taking Movember very seriously, but Durante’s handlebars are simply outshone by Ferrante’s full and voluptuous soup-strainer, so well played son.
Man of the Match: Michael Ferrante’s magnificent Mo’.

Perth Glory vs. Wellington Phoenix: Match Preview
31.10.08

This match is shaping up to be quite a big one in this season’s A-League as I see it. The bottom two clubs from last season have both progressed this time around and in recent weeks especially have picked up some valuable results, that have suggested they have the ability to make a decent go of making the play offs, come the end of the season. I think the winner of this clash will use it as a springboard to push on and keep in contention, but a demoralising defeat could mean the losers fall back into the rut of last season.

It will be important for Wellington especially to get back to winning was after last weeks defeat at home almost cancelled out the excellent away result against the Mariners. While some fans were displeased with the showing, I thought there was enough there for the ‘Nix and they deserved at least a point from the game. Having said that though, I think that Herbert will need to make a couple of changes to freshen things up a bit.

Vaughan Coveny, though always a willing runner, seems mostly clueless when he has the ball, and he missed a great opportunity last week, while not looking like any sort of a threat for the rest of the game. So I would like to see Ricki give him a blow this week, and either push Kwasnik up front, or bring in the pace of Barbarouses who has been recalled to the squad. I think Costa’s pace would be a good foil for Smeltz’s strength and hold up play, and he could be unleashed by Gao’s clever passing.

Ricki will stick with the back for and holding midfield pair that has looked so solid in recent weeks, and rightly so, as the prospect of Perth having big Eugene Dadi back to partner fellow target man Jamie Harnwell, with Nikita Rukavytsya in the mix as well, will prove a real handful I’m sure. Harnwell and Rukavtsya have been in good form in recent weeks, but the back-from-injury Dadi was a constant thorn in the ‘Nix’s side when we last made the trip to Perth.

However, I think that Kwasnik needs a change from his wide role, he does not seem to have the trickery or pace to cut it out wide, and Bertos showed last week that he is always dangerous and can deliver a good ball from the byline, which is food and drink for Smeltz. Whether Kwasnik partners Smeltz, or is dropped to the bench in favour of Costa or even Daniel (in a 4-2-3-1) remains to be seen, but I think Bertos definitely needs to start. With Gao and Bertos on either wing, we should have a good outlet to relieve the pressure that will inevitably build up if Glory are constantly sending the ball up to their big target men.

In all then I think this is going to be a very tight and telling affair. A win for the Phoenix would take us to 12 points, and a climb possibly as high as 5th, depending on other results. If the Glory take the points though, they will leapfrog Wellington, and leave the ‘Nix with the horrible feeling of propping up the rest of the league. With these two clubs being generally regarded as the weakest two in the league, the victor will take a big boost in confidence, but the loser may suffer a blow that will be difficult to recover from. It’s shaping up to be a great game, I just hope the Phoenix take the spoils.

Wellington Phoenix 0-1 Queensland Roar: Match Summary
26.10.08

McKain may have got nearer the ball if he had opened his eyes.

McKain may have got nearer the ball if he had opened his eyes.

The Phoenix’s three match of unbeaten run came to an end at the Westpac stadium today, but it could have been son different. But for a few vital incidents going differently, Wellington could easily have taken the three points and be sitting pretty in the top four at this point in time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.

A closely contested match saw limited goalmouth action, which means the defences of either side deserve a lot of credit, as both teams were ambitious going forward. A few early chances saw Queensland blaze over and Vaughan Coveny miss what can really only be described as a golden opportunity when a corner was headed away only as far as the penalty spot where he was perfectly placed to rifle a volley into the back of the net, but unfortunately he too would sky the ball in what was to become a recurring theme.

Smeltz was the first to test either keeper before Queensland went ahead as he battled his way through three Roar defenders, only to run out of steam at the curcial moment, meaning his shot somewhat fizzled into the ‘keeper’s arms. Then Charlie Miller’s free kick brought a full stretch save from Mark Paston, who tipped wide, giving Roar a corner, from which they capitalised.

There was nothing Paston could do this time, as some slack marking gave Josh McCloughan an easy header, and he squeezed his header between the post and Ben Sigmund on the line – who should really have managed to keep it out, but a slight stumble blemished an otherwise fine performance for the Phoenix’s in-form right back. Still, Wellington had plenty of time on their side and had shown that they could cause the Roar problems.

The second half saw Bertos enter the fray for Adam Kwasnik (though arguably Coveny should have made way as he offered little threat) and the wide man spurred the Phoenix into life. Unfortunately, the Roar also set up a bit more defencively, obviously determined not to surrender their lead as Sydney had done during the last match at the Ring of Fire.

The Phoenix held the lions share of possession in the second period and Bertos, Daniel (who replaced Coveny) and Gao all looked likely to create that spark that would lead to the equaliser. But it seemed that the luck wasn’t with them, as a McKain header beat the ‘keeper but not the cross bar, and a Gao header after good work from an overlapping Sigmund was tamely saved by Liam Reddy.

But Wellington continued to press and always looked likely to get something from the game, and the home faithful were sure the moment had come when Bertos broke clean through, one on one with the ‘keeper. Without the benefit of having seen a replay yet, I cannot confirm if Bertos was actually onside, but if he was he was surely one of only two Wellington players who were (Paston being the other), but the Roar could not have complained as the linesman had been flagging incorrectly all game (a noticeable habit of all A-League linesman, who seem to believe that if a player strays offside while the ball is in motion, their flag must go up).

Anyway, Bertos, one of classiest and most composed players was bearing down on Liam Reddy’s goal, with only the stopper to beat. The crowd were on their feet, but after Bertos attempted to curl a right footed shot into the far corner and saw the ball blazed high and wide, the Yellow Fever simply fell, dismayed and unbelieving back into their seats, even as Bertos himself crashed to the ground, head in hands.

It was an unbelievable miss, with only the ‘keeper to beat and a good point for the Phoenix a hair’s breadth away, Bertos couldn’t even find the target. It was truly awful, and I wouldn’t blame Ricki Herbert if Bertos didn’t collect his pay packet this week. It is moments like that which prove a players true quality, and Bertos buckled under the pressure, even though he had rejuvenated the Phoenix after entering the frey at half time, and should have been full of confidence.

I knew then that it wasn’t going to be our day, but the boys did press on and a late strike from Smeltz in the midst of a crowded penalty area could have ended up anywhere, but in-keeping with the run of the day, fell harmlessly wide. I’m not sure how much injury time was played (if there was an announcement I didn’t hear it), but it wasn’t enough after the lengthy treatment Sergio Van Dijk received for an apparent back injury after he fell heavily from an aerial challenge. The optimist in me says that had there been the deserved extra few minutes, a point may have been gained for the Phoenix, and two lost for the Roar, but at the end of the day, it seemd the ball was destined never to go in for us.

All in all a frustrating match. An even first half gave way to a Wellington dominated second, and arguably we deserved the points for the football on show. But credit to Queensland, they got their goal and sat on it, defending superbly, and if there is a better way to get a result away from home against an in-form team, I’m yet to hear of it.  Man of the match goes to LeiLei Gao, because it was clear at times that he is a class apart, and he was trying very hard to win the game by himself. Had Sigmund not let in the Roar’s goal, it would have been a very different game and his name would be written below in italics, but as it is, Gao’s determination shades it.
Man of the Match: LeiLei Gao

Central Coast Mariners 0-1 Wellington Phoenix: Match Summary
19.10.08

A sweltering day saw the Phoenix travel to Central Coast in a bid to continue the resurgence in form that had given them a win and a draw against Sydney and Newcastle respectively in the last two games. Central Coast, in good form themselves though, would prove a tough test to Ricki Herbert’s side, whose only change from the last match saw McKain come in for Johnson in midfield, the stalwart Kiwi having a virus.

The game got under way and saw CCM settle down quite quickly into their easy rhythm, but never really looking too dangerous, and with both teams happy to operate at a slow tempo in the heat. Phoenix then saw a good spell of possession and a couple of half-chances, notably a Tim Brown header straight at the ‘keeper, but were unable to get the all important break through. While the tempo was slow, it was refreshing to see both sides happy to knock the ball around and keep possession, rather than constantly going long in search of the ‘killer pass’ that we see all too often at times in the A-League.

There is little more really to say about the first half, it was a close affair but neither side ever really threatened, with both defences largely untroubled. After half time, and the players no doubt having a well earned drink, Phoenix started the half the brighter, having a bit more of the ball but not creating anything of note until Smeltz was released through the middle, and cutting inside, struck a decent shot for the near corner, only to see CCM ‘keeper Danny Vukovic make a good save, justifying his inclusion ahead of Mark Bosnich.

Unfortunately for CCM though, the resulting corner, swung in to the near post, saw a darting Karl Dodd connect with the deftest of glancing headers then watch delighted as it nestled just inside the far post, as the defender who had been on the line moments earlier watched in horror. Dodd getting his first goal for the Phoenix, and making him the scorer of the 800th A-League goal, few people would have predicted him as the one to claim that milestone before the game.

This rekindled the Mariners players somewhat and they dominated much of the remainder of the game with long spells of possession, but apart from one beautifully struck free-kick from Mile Jedinak that rattled the ‘Nix’s crossbar, couldn’t create any chances of a clear cut nature. Herbert shored up his side, replacing Coveny with Ferrante, and with about fifteen left on the clock, brought on Bertos after his lengthy injury lay off. Once Bertos came on the balance of play shifted back towards the Phoenix slightly, with his speed and fresh legs a valuable release valve for the hard working defence.

Five minutes of added time were seen out with relative comfort by the Phoenix players, much of it spent in the corners, and finally the referee blew the whistle on the Mariners first defeat to their Kiwi opposition in A-League competition. Man of a not particularly exhilerating, but surprisingly comfortable match for the Phoenix goes to Jon McKain, who protected the defence superbly and will surely be retained even once Johnson is fit again. McKain just pips Dodd who has shown in recent weeks that he belongs at the heart of defence rather than midfield, but he’ll get enough plaudits for his all important goal.
Man of the Match: Jon McKain

Attack: The best form of Defence
15.10.08

"Attack!"

"Attack!"

Having been an avid supporter of the Phoenix through the debut season that at times promised so much, but ultimately tailed off rather incongruously, I was, like most other committed fans, encouraged and delighted by our reasonably successful pre-season, and what seemed to be some quality additions to the squad.

And while in the past couple of games we have come good with a win over Sydney and a draw with defending champions Newcastle, we are as yet unable to recreate that pre-season form when it really counts. Although we have arguably been a tad unlucky with injuries, with players like Bertos and McKain missing games, and Brown only recently returning (and making an instant impact), I think that a lot of the trouble can be put down to the change in mentality that the pressures of a hyped up league season has brought.

While retaining the utmost respect for the pre-season tournament of which we were runners up, it is fair to say that it is nothing more than a warm up to the league proper and so while we were not playing full strength sides in that competition, our finishing as runners up was still a good effort. The biggest positive I took from the games though, was the brand of attacking football that was on display.

Lining up with one up front is often criticised, but when that one is Shane Smeltz and he is supported by three attacking midfielders of the quality and creativity of Leilei Gao, Leo Bertos and Daniel, as well as a player in the holding role with the passing range that Ferrante demonstrated in the second half of last season, Ricki Herbert put out a side that was very much encouraged to get forward and play attacking football.

The link-up between the three creative players was excellent, with Bertos playing predominantly on the right or as a second striker and Daniel and Gao interchanging smoothly, it was a fluid and at times unplayable combination, with Smeltz providing a bit of extra power and determination when necessary. The question is then, what has changed? Why have we reverted back to the hesitant side that looks uncomfortable on the ball that depends far too heavily on Shane Smeltz that we saw last season?

Firstly, the absence of Bertos through injury is a blow no doubt. While he didn’t fire consistently in pre-season, it was clear that at any time he could burst into life and cut open an A-League defence. But the main difference I feel, is the attitude of coach Ricki Herbert, and the subsequent line up of the team. After all, though Bertos is missing, we have in Troy Hearfield and Adam Kwasnik two players equally capable of fulfilling the role left by the All Whites international.

Instead Herbert has often returned to putting out a straight 4-4-2 formation, deploying Gao on one wing and either Hearfield or Kwasnik on the other. And while playing with two players up top may seem an attacking alternative, the problem arises when the midfield is completed by two holding midfield players, often Dodd and Johnson, who provide little in the way of creativity.

There is no link through the middle between the front two, and so everything must go wide before we can get any sort of quality service to the two big front men, Smeltz and Coveny. This is easy for the opposition to shut down though, as they know every time where it is going to go, so disciplined full backs can all but squash our attacking impetus.

Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not against playing the 4-4-2 formation, but I feel that a more creative central force is required to create a more cohesive attacking unit. Whether this is deploying a faster, more dynamic striker alongside Smeltz (like for instance, Barbarouses) or by ditching one of the holding players in favour of a creative midfielder I leave to Ricki Herbert, but if we are to compete, we need goals.

Another criticism I must make of Herbert is his apparent reluctance to play Gao and Daniel in the same side. While I admit that neither brings a great amount to the team defensively, they are the two players in our squad who can do something unexpected, can create something from nothing, and so if he does insist on keeping his two holding midfielders, surely they give license to utilise Daniel and Gao on either side of the park.

Finally, I think that we need to go for the kill in games more often. It often seems that Herbert is content with a home draw, when he replaces a striker or Leilei Gao with another holding midfielder, as has happened in recent matches. While I understand that a draw is better than losing the game by going all out attack, I think that for the most part we have looked defensively comfortable, particularly in home games, and so going for the win a touch more couldn’t hurt.

While the chances of the Phoenix making the top four were talked up at the start of the season, at the moment our form looks sufficient to only suggest we are capable of not finishing bottom, which would previously have been quite a milestone for a New Zealand team in the Australian league. But there is a reason why we were talked up, and there is a reason why Ricki Herbert is clearly feeling the pressure – because we are good enough to challenge for honours.

So instead of feeling the pressure and trying to avoid letting everyone down by losing a game here and there, Ricki needs to embrace the talents of his squad, have faith in the rebuilt defence and unleash his creative attacking talent on the other A-League defences. If he is brave enough to do this, I truly believe that Wellington Phoenix can become a force to be reckoned with. So go for glory Ricki, if not for yourself, do it for the Yellow Fever, because while you might be content with a draw at home, we most certainly aren’t!

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