Nine big days lie ahead for the Wellington Phoenix in the Isuzu UTE A-League, with the men to play host to their two nearest challengers in the next couple of rounds.
The Phoenix, who sit fifth on the A-League ladder, welcome seventh-placed Newcastle Jets to Sky Stadium on Saturday afternoon before entertaining sixth-placed Sydney FC at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday week.
The Nix are just a point ahead of the Jets and Sky Blues, with a further three-point gap to the chasing pack.
Head coach Ufuk Talay says it’s a very important couple of games for his team.
“We’ve got a massive game against Newcastle Jets that we need to win,” Talay told media on the eve of the match.
“We’ve had a long month of travelling. The four games have probably been the toughest, being four games away from home.
“We’ve got the opportunity now to play in front of our fans and next week travel up to Auckland and play up there so we need to win this game against Newcastle Jets and try to get a good result against Sydney FC as well and win that game.
“I think these next couple of weeks will determine the top six and start to pull away from the teams below.”
Departing trio remain in Talay’s plans
The club announced earlier on Friday that first-choice goalkeeper Oli Sail and key midfielders Clayton Lewis and Steven Ugarkovic will play elsewhere next season.
Talay has made it clear the off-contract trio remain firmly in his plans for the remainder of this season.
“We’ve got an aim to finish the highest position we possibly can this season so it’s very important that we utilise the players that we currently have.
“I never begrudge players for making decisions to leave. It’s a short career, it’s not an office job they can do till they’re 65 so they need to make the best decisions they can for themselves and their families.”
And he doesn’t believe their impending departures will be a distraction for the team.
“The reality is the players are professional, they’re currently getting paid by Wellington Phoenix and it’s their job to go out there and perform.
“Like myself, I’m coming off contract but I’m going to do everything in my power to finish at the highest possible level that we can.”
Lewis remains side-lined with a fractured kneecap, but he is “progressing well” and the club is hopeful he may be able to be involved with the All Whites squad later this month.
He and fullback Sam Sutton are the only two first-team squad members unavailable for selection this weekend, with All Whites forward Kosta Barbarouses able to play limited minutes this weekend after three weeks out with a hamstring strain.
Sutton suffered a hamstring injury of his own at training this week and will be side-lined for two weeks.
Fortunately, on loan left back Lucas Mauragis is available to play against his parent club on Saturday afternoon. The Jets prevented Mauragis from playing against Newcastle when the sides last met in October.
The Jets won that match 3-1 and have won five of their last seven matches against the Phoenix.
But the visitors are without former Nix playmaker Reno Piscopo because of injury, while forward Archie Goodwin is away in Uzbekistan with the Young Socceroos at the Asian Cup.
It’s the club’s turn for its Pride Celebration game after the celebration took place across the league last weekend.
“It’s very important. We want to include everybody,” Talay said.
“The game of football is open to everybody, what your preferences are is irrelevant.
“Wellington is a very inclusive city itself so we’re proud to be involved with it.”
Game to be played on Saturday March 4, 2023
Wellington Phoenix v Newcastle Jets
Sky Stadium, Wellington, 3pm (NZT
How to watch
The will be broadcast LIVE on Sky Sport Select and 7 in New Zealand and on Paramount+ in Australia.
Most recent A-League meeting: 22 October 2022 – Newcastle Jets 3 Wellington Phoenix 1
All-time A-League head-to-head: Phoenix 23W, Jets 16W & 6D.
3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. Steven UGARKOVIC, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 8. Ben OLD, 9. Oskar ZAWADA, 10. David BALL, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Lucas MAURAGIS, 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 14. Alex RUFER, 15. Nikko BOXALL, 17. Callan ELLIOT, 20. Oli SAIL (gk), 21. Joshua LAWS, 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 31. Yan SASSE, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk).
Unavailable: 19. Sam SUTTON (injured), 23. Clayton LEWIS (injured).
1. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 2. Dane INGHAM, 3. Jason HOFFMAN, 4. Manabu SAITO 5. Matthew JURMAN (co-captain), 6. Brandon O’NEILL (co-captain), 7. Trent BUHAGIAR, 8. Beka DARTSMELIA, 9. Beka MIKELTADZE, 11. Jaushua SOTIRIO, 14. Mohamed AL-TAAY, 17. Kosta GROZOS, 18. Daniel STYNES, 19. Callum TIMMINS, 20. Michael WEIER (gk), 22. Philip CANCAR, 25. Carl JENKINSON (co-captain), 32. Angus THURGATE, 33. Mark NATTA. 39. Thomas AQUILINA.
Unavailable: 10. Reno PISCOPO (injury), 26. Archie GOODWIN (international duty).