After a four-year wait, Wellington Phoenix are back in the Hyundai A-League Finals Series.
Their reward for a sixth-place finish is a clash with defending champions Melbourne Victory in the Elimination Final at AAMI Park on Friday night (kick-off 7.50pm AEST).
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Given the club’s struggles in recent seasons, just reaching this stage has made 2018/19 a success, but there is no way Phoenix’s players will want the journey to end here.
So here’s four things Wellington will need to do to get past Victory and move on to a semi-final with premiers Perth Glory next week.
While Wellington have been one game short of reaching a Grand Final in the past (back in 2010), it’s been seven long years since they last won a finals match.
In fact, Phoenix have never tasted success in a post-season fixture outside New Zealand, underlining the task they face in Melbourne on Friday night.
And if you look at the record of how sixth-placed teams have fared against third in the past, it does not make for good reading.
Only once since the Hyundai A-League reverted to a top-six finals format has the sixth-placed team pulled off an upset – Newcastle Jets defeating Gold Coast United in 2010 – with the third-placed side winning the other eight matches.
Win the midfield battle
There is no secret where Victory’s strength lies. In Carl Valeri, Keisuke Honda, Terry Antonis and James Troisi they have a midfield the envy of most in the competition.
It is in the middle of the park where Victory like to strangle their opponents, before letting their quality passing and movement take over.
If the likes of Alex Rufer, Mandi and Sarpreet Singh can at least match their counterparts and help their side play at their own tempo, the visitors will go a long way towards winning the match.
Tighten up at the back
It’s easy to say, especially after Phoenix shipped five goals against the Glory on Sunday night.
But it is in defence where Wellington have looked a little shaky over the last month, conceding 12 goals in their last four matches.
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As a hard-nosed centre-back in his playing days, coach Mark Rudan will not be happy and you can be sure much of the build-up to this one will be focussed on plugging the gaps at the back.
The return of skipper Andrew Durante – who was rested against Glory – should also help their cause.
Don’t change their approach
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Wellington drew all three matches against Victory this season and arguably were the better side on each occasion.
They had success by playing with no fear and backing themselves to take the game to their more-fancied opponents.
Phoenix actually had Victory on the ropes in all three encounters, only to be pegged back in the second half on each occasion.