The Wellington Phoenix have a chance to book their seventh trip to the finals in the club’s 400th A-League match.
The Phoenix visit high-flying Melbourne Victory on Friday night, knowing a win, and the three points that come with it, will secure them a place in the top six with two games in hand.
The Nix agonisingly finished one point adrift of the playoffs last year after Ufuk Talay guided the club to third on the ladder in his first season in charge.
“We’ve got three games and we’ll take it game by game,” Talay told media on Thursday. “We’ve got a very important game tomorrow night against a very good side so we’ll go there with a game plan to get the result that we need.”
Victory are on a club-record 13-match unbeaten run and are already assured of a place in the finals for the first time in three seasons. But the four-time champions are chasing a top two finish.
Talay: ‘I think it’ll probably be a cagey game …’
“They’re pushing hard to push up in the ladder as well so I think it’ll be a very tough game,” Talay said.
“They’re a very disciplined side. They’re a very good, organised team. They’ve got some very good players in their front third that can hurt you, especially in transition.
“They do like to at times let the opponent have the ball and defend. They have no issue with that.”
The Phoenix beat Victory 1-0 in the team’s last meeting in Wollongong in February, with Reno Piscopo scoring the match-winner.
“I think it’ll probably be a cagey game like it was the last game we played them.
“Two teams that are very disciplined without the ball. If we find those moments, those opportunities to score I think we need to be clinical in getting those goals.”
The Nix relished playing in front of close to 35 thousand fans in their two matches in New Zealand and they are hoping for a similar experience at the best-supported club in the A-League.
“I’m actually looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere with the crowd that they have down at AAMI Park.
“It’ll be a great spectacle and a great opportunity for our boys to play in front of big crowd. Although it won’t be our supporters I think it’ll be a great atmosphere.”
Ufuk Talay has noticed a spring in the players’ step since returning from their 10-day stint in Aotearoa.
“The morale’s high with the group. The sessions that we’ve had have been good.
“They’ve very vocal, which is a good thing, especially before a meeting. When the boys are very vocal in the meeting room is a good sign they’re in a good headspace.
“The boys know what they’ve achieved so far and they’re very close to achieving the goal that we need.”
Talay will be forced to make at least one change to the XI which started at Eden Park on Sunday with top goal scorer Jaushua Sotirio “feeling a bit tight in his calf” and he most likely won’t feature on Friday night.
“Which is disappointing because I thought he did a good job for us at right wing back. A new role for him but probably playing that position took its toll.”
Hooper set for recall after injury
The Phoenix will be able to call on Gary Hooper for the first time in six weeks, with the veteran striker shaking off a calf injury.
“Hoops is a proven goal scorer and to have him back with the squad is a very positive sign.
“He’ll still be limited in the time that he plays but for us to have a player of his calibre even sitting on the bench and maybe giving us 15-20 minutes is a massive boost.”
The Isuzu UTE A-League match between the Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne Victory is scheduled to kick-off at AAMI Park in Melbourne at 7:45pm AEST (9:45pm NZT) and will be broadcast LIVE on Sky Sport 3 & 7 in New Zealand and on Paramount+ in Australia.
Most recent meeting: 9 February 2022 – Wellington Phoenix 1 Melbourne Victory 0
All-time head-to-head: Phoenix 11W, Victory 21W & 11D.
Wellington Phoenix squad
3. Matthew BOZINOVSKI, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. James MCGARRY, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Gael SANDOVAL, 8. Ben OLD, 9. David BALL, 10. Reno PISCOPO, 11. Jaushua SOTIRIO, 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 16. Louis FENTON, 17. Callan ELLIOT, 18. Ben WAINE, 19. Sam SUTTON, 20. Oli SAIL (gk), 21. Joshua LAWS, 23. Clayton LEWIS, 30. Henry GRAY (gk), 31. Kurtis MOGG, 32. George OTT, 33. Finn SURMAN, 34. Jackson MANUEL, 36. Riley BIDOIS, 38. Luis TOOMEY, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 43. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 88. Gary HOOPER
Unavailable: 11. Jaushua SOTIRIO (calf injury), 14. Alex RUFER (season-ending knee injury), 17. Callan ELLIOT (hamstring injury), 21. Joshua LAWS (knee injury), 23. Clayton LEWIS (ankle injury)