Pre-Season Cup - Round 3 Review
Phoenix and Victory progress to Pre-Season final.
The Pre-Season Cup will see a final that not many would have predicted prior to its start three weeks ago, with the Hyundai A-League-s most recent member Wellington Phoenix progressing to its first final, when they host Melbourne Victory on Wednesday night.
Dispensing with semi finals, the two group winners made it through to the play-off final, with Wellington-s advancement a huge achievement for the New Zealand-based franchise.
The Phoenix have only been existence for just on 16 months and after an encouraging inaugural season off the park at least, coach Riki Herbert looks like he has got things moving on the park as well.
While the nucleus of the squad has remained the same, Herbert has been one of the most active during the off-season and picked up some very handy players including the likes of fringe Qantas Socceroo defender Jon McKain, Newcastle Jets Championship winning players Andrew Durante and Troy Hearfield, Kiwi internationals Leo Bertos and David Mulligan, Central Coast Mariners midfielder or striker Adam Kwasnik and Chinese striker Leilei Gao has also returned.
On Saturday night, they showed a new found mental toughness, where before they would have almost certainly have crumbled. Down 2-0 at half time against Sydney FC and knowing a win was needed to make the final, Wellington-s players rallied superbly.
Hearfield, who moved to Phoenix to find more first team action, did his chances no harm of achieving that aim, with a goal after 57 minutes. That was quickly followed by a penalty five minutes later from Shane Smeltz and it was game on.
With eight minutes to go, Gao, on as a 73rd minute substitute, grabbed the winning goal that not only booked their place in the final, but a home final to boot as well.
Melbourne Victory, who traditionally have been slow starters during the pre-season, finished top of Group A, after new recruit Tom Pondeljak gave them a late 1-0 win over Newcastle Jets in Port Macquarie.
It was a good turnaround by Victory after losing their opening game to Adelaide United in Launceston. Two good away wins, with key players also missing, is a good sign for the Victory and they will be a big test for Wellington on Wednesday night at Westpac Stadium.
Victory can thank Perth Glory for their involvement in the final, after they held Adelaide to a 0-0 draw in Mt. Gambier. Adelaide remained unbeaten in their three games, but two 0-0 draws may have people questioning where the goals will come from for the South Australian team.
Meanwhile, the Central Coast Mariners made sure they will go into the defence of the Hyundai A-League Premiers Plate they won last season in a positive frame of mind, after accounting for Queensland Roar 2-1.
New recruits Ahmad Elrich and Dylan Macallister scored their first goals for the club in a strong opening half by the Mariners, but despite the dismissal of captain Craig Moore straight after the break, Queensland Roar got back into the match and were unlucky not to get a result.
Mark Bosnich came on for the final 25 minutes of the game for the Mariners and was again impressive, with a short-term contract looking good for the former Socceroos keeper.
All in all, while it has been a shortened pre-season, it has provided some good insights into the season proper, which starts on August 15 with a grand final re-match between Newcastle and Central Coast at EnergyAustralia Stadium.
Many of the new imports look the goods and the advent of the youth league will also see many new young players presented with opportunities that otherwise might not have come along for a few years yet.
The 2008 Pre-Season Cup final will be played at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, kicking off at 7.30pm. Tickets will cost $15 for adults, with children (16 and under) admitted free when accompanied by a paying adult (maximum three children per paying adult). Tickets are available for purchase from the Wellington Phoenix club store on the corner of Cuba and Dixon streets in Wellington city and will also be on sale at the gate on game day.