After two poor seasons in a row in the Hyundai A-League, Wellington Phoenix need a big campaign to get the crowds back at the impressive Cake Tin.Phoenix averaged over 10,000 spectators per game at Westpac Stadium in two of their first three seasons but despite an upturn last term, following the low of 6,877 of 2012-13, the New Zealand-based club still only managed an average attendance of 8,202.
That's what happens when you finish last and second-last in consecutive campaigns but, in his second year in charge, Wellington coach Ernie Merrick has overhauled a large portion of his squad and he will be desperate to lead the Phoenix to their fourth appearance in the A-League finals.
THE BURNING QUESTIONS
Has Merrick fixed the defence?
Wellington Phoenix conceded 51 goals last season - eight more than Melbourne Victory, who had the second-worst defensive record - while the New Zealanders let in 49 in 2012-13, just ahead of Sydney FC (51). Despite that, Merrick has signed just one defender in the lead-up to the new season - left-back Tom Doyle - and if Wellington continue to leak goals, questions will certainly be asked of the Scotland-born coach.
Jeremy Brockie - champion or chump?
In seven seasons in the A-League, Jeremy Brockie has been tough to pin down. Capable of spectacular goals, the versatile forward has struggled to hit the back of the net regularly enough. After 16 goals in 2012-13, the New Zealand international only managed five last term and fell behind Stein Huysegems in the pecking order. What will the 26-year-old do this season?
LESSONS LEARNT FROM LAST SEASON
Despite scoring 16 of the Phoenix's 36 goals between them last season, Huysegems and Carlos Hernandez have been sacrificed for their lack of speed. In has come Alex Rodriguez, Michael McGlinchey and Nathan Burns in a bid to instil a high-energy style of football in Wellington.
Wellington have a relatively easy start to the 2014-15 campaign, as they host Perth Glory and Newcastle Jets - who both missed the finals last term - in the first three rounds, split by a trip to Central Coast Mariners. But their run home will probably define the Phoenix's season, as they have seven home games in the last 11 rounds, including four out of five to end the campaign.
With Albert Riera set to anchor midfield and the likes of Rodriguez, McGlinchey and Burns ahead of them, Merrick's side will have plenty of creativity, while just about every potential midfielder and forward has pace.
A lack of serious defensive reinforcements will be a big concern to Wellington fans, while if Brockie fails to fire, Merrick doesn't have many other options to lead the line, following Huysegems' departure.
Merrick plans to incorporate all five of his new signings in a 4-1-4-1 formation this season. Doyle will slot in on the left of Wellington's back four, while Riera will play as the sole holder in midfield behind Roly Bonevacia, Rodriguez, McGlinchey and Burns, who will provide support to Brockie.
Rodriguez joins the Phoenix after four seasons with Sunderland's youth and reserve teams and the 21-year-old is an exciting prospect for Wellington fans. The Spanish attacking midfielder starred in the Phoenix's 2-1 friendly win over West Ham in July, setting up one goal and scoring the other and, apart from a slight injury hiccup in pre-season, looks set for a big campaign.
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