Preview: Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne Heart

With both the Phoenix and Heart likely to play a big part when the business end of the season rolls around, this one looms as an absolute cracker as the battle for the finals heats up.

Date: Sunday 29 January, 2012 Kick-off: 2.30pm AEDT, 4.30pm local Venue: Westpac Stadium

Head-to-head Played: 4 Wins: Wellington 1, Heart 2, Draws: 1

Previous encounter Heart 1, Wellington 0, 4 December 2011

History: How on earth did Wellington not take anything away from their last match against Heart? They threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Red and Whites in the last 20 minutes, but their shots simply refused to go in.

Mate Dugandzic's goal, four minutes from the interval, therefore did the business for Melbourne Heart. It was a slender win, and it gave them a slender lead in the overall head-to-head results between the two sides.

They're both relatively new sides, don't forget - they've only met four times before and the Heart have never won in New Zealand.


Past five matches: Wellington: LWLWW Heart: LDLLD

Summary of form: The Phoenix have been on fire of late, relatively speaking. Yes, there are two losses in their last five games as shown above, but the New Zealand side has to deal with international travel every other week - that's why their last two wins, both away, are so impressive.

Triumphs on the Gold Coast and in Newcastle have the 'Nix sitting pretty in third spot on the ladder, only two points behind the once-invincible Brisbane Roar. Nobody, bar Ricki Herbert and his men, would have predicted that.

For the Heart, their recent resurgence has hit somewhat of a roadblock in recent weeks. They haven't picked up a win in 2012 from five attempts.

They looked on course to snatch victory in their last outing, though, against the Roar - Jonatan Germano put them 1-0 up but Brisbane 'bad boy' Besart Berisha found the equaliser with just over 20 minutes to go. The match finished 1-1, leaving the Heart one point behind third-placed Wellington.

Match Committee: Last week's goalscoring hero Manny Muscat won't play this weekend for Wellington - he's in Melbourne awaiting the birth of his first child. Vince Lia, who is the obvious replacement for him at right-back, is still struggling with a knee injury.

That opens the door for a potential Hyundai A-League debut for Cameron Lindsay, the 19-year-old utility who only signed for the club earlier in the season. Nick Ward (ankle) is a touch-and-go proposition.

Wayne Srhoj (quad) is a chance of returning for Melbourne Heart on Sunday, having not made a single A-League appearance in the New Year. Fred (groin), Nick Kalmar (back) and Kliment Taseski (foot) are all long-term casualties. New signing Paul Reid is available, but is tipped to stay in the NYL for at least another week.

Danger men:

Mate Dugandzic - The dynamic Heart attacker gets one final chance on Sunday to strut his stuff before he's whisked away to Dubai for a Qantas Australian U-23s training camp.

Dugandzic has been ever-present for the Red and Whites this season, with his blistering pace and excellent technique playing a major role in his side's march up the table. With six goals and four assists for the season, he'd love nothing more than to run riot in Wellington to make sure John van 't Schip keeps his spot open for him when he returns in late February.

Mark Paston - Ricki Herbert's decision to hand the No.1 jersey to the Kiwi veteran instead of Tony Warner has paid off. Paston returned to the goalmouth just over a week ago, when the 'Nix came to the Gold Coast, and was outstanding.

Despite United having plenty of chances to score, the experienced custodian thwarted their every attempt. He was busy in Newcastle as well, keeping the Jets at bay long enough to ensure Manny Muscat's goal on the hour mark was the difference. Heart's strikeforce will need to be wise when picking their spot, or else Paston will be at it again.

At the end of the day...

You could forgive the average punter for looking at this fixture at the start of the season with a sense of dread. The expectation was that Wellington would be cellar-dwellers and the Heart wouldn't be too far in front of them, and any match in which Ricki Herbert is involved usually means a tough, gritty affair.

But fast forward a few months and this one looms as an absolute cracker as the battle for the finals heats up. Both the 'Nix and the Heart look likely to play a big part when the business end of the season rolls around.

There's a bit of a logjam behind runaway leaders Central Coast, and these two sides are right in amongst it. A win could take Wellington as high as second place, and that'd be a suitable reward for the way they're playing - they've got unshakable self-belief, are putting together some terrific passages of play and look barely wearied by their hectic travel schedule.

The Heart are a bit out of touch, and the "Cake Tin" in Wellington is a fortress, so we're tipping a Phoenix win here.