Talking Points: Phoenix fever building with Wellington's best ever season in their sights
Wellington Phoenix are a team reborn and re-energised under Ufuk Talay, who has the New Zealanders on course for their best season yet.
Competing for Hyundai A-League silverware, while not a pipe dream, seemed a long way off when Talay took the helm of the Kiwi outfit in May – particularly as the ex-Sydney FC assistant had a handful of players at his disposal.
It certainly seemed as though 2019/20 was going to be season of transition after a shock FFA Cup exit to Brisbane Strikers and four straight losses, but after an eight-match unbeaten streak the Phoenix are positively flying, and the best could still be yet to come.
Saturday's 2-1 win over Central Coast Mariners highlighted just how far they come in a matter of months. The club set a record nine matches unbeaten last season but will match that by avoiding defeat against Western Sydney Wanderers next Saturday.
The successful overhaul of Phoenix’s spine makes Talay look a miracle worker. Wellington lost eight key players (Filip Kurto, Andrew Durante, Michal Kopczynski, Mandi, Sarpreet Singh, Max Burgess, Roy Krishna) in the off-season but their replacements have all been massive hits.
Players like Luke DeVere and Jaushua Sotirio have been transformed, Stefan Marinovic might usurp Filip Kurto as the Hyundai A-League’s premiere gloveman on current form, and in Mexican Ulises Davila, Phoenix have acquired the best international signing of the season.
Talay, who pledged to bring ‘excitement to our fans and to the A-League’ by unearthing new faces this season, is more than delivering on that promise, with young stars like Cameron Devlin (21), Callum McCowatt (20), Ben Waine (18) and Reno Piscopo (21) all taking their opportunities to impress.
Devlin in particular has been a revelation in December and gives Talay a genuine headache in choosing whether the former Sutherland Sharks youth is preferred to vice-captain Alex Rufer or the excellent Matti Steinmann in protective midfield positions.
Liberato Cacace, meanwhile, has taken his game to the next level. The 19-year-old made a big impression in his debut campaign but is now firmly among the best fullbacks in the competition and can impact matches like few others can from left back. On the opposite flank, newcomer Tim Payne has made the absence of Louis Fenton look inconsequential.
While recruitment has been an outstanding success, Talay’s rewiring of Phoenix’s style has been even more impressive. Wellington’s charge to the top six last campaign relied heavily on the goals of Krishna and Williams, who combined for 29 of Phoenix’s 46 goals scored across the regular season.
This campaign, Phoenix have goals all across a frontline led splendidly by Englishman David Ball. Wellington had just eight different goal scorers last season but have eight already in 2019/20.
And, with Gary Hooper still not up to speed, Talay will soon have a focal point and deadly finisher to weave into his attack, one that will allow the New Zealanders to add direct balls into the mix with their normal short, sharp passing game.
Fans can sense there is something special growing. General Manager David Dome tweeted that this Saturday’s clash with Western Sydney Wanderers expected to bring in the club’s biggest crowd of the campaign. Many would believe that their beloved Phoenix are on their way to smashing their club record haul of 42 points, and a fourth-place finish, from 2014/15.
Wellington Phoenix v Western Sydney Wanderers
Saturday, 11 January 2020
Kick off: 3.45pm local, 2.45pm AEDT
Victory have the old Kruse back after Jets mauling
Robbie Kruse put Hyundai A-League defences to the sword when he emerged on the Hyundai A-League scene with Melbourne Victory a decade ago and Sunday’s 4-0 demolition job of Newcastle Jets showed the Australian international is fit and firing once more.
Kruse, now 31, has endured a career hit by injuries and a hamstring strain in pre-season has made it difficult for the forward to get up to speed. But he feels his body is getting back to its best.
“The majority of my career I’ve really struggled with injuries, it’s really hampered me a lot," he told FOX Sports.
“Particularly in my time in Europe, at critical times injuries have really cut me down and I’ve had quite a few long-term ones.
“I started this season with some injuries, but I’ve played the last five games in a row and I feel my body is getting back to what it was back when I was on fire.
“I feel really good, I feel like I’m beating players all the time when I get the ball. My fitness is getting back, and it’s always been a strength of mine
Kruse notched his second goal of the campaign to open the floodgates for a resounding win and one which puts Victory on the cusp of the top six.
After an indifferent start from Marco Kurz’s side, the four-time Champions are only behind sixth-placed Adelaide on goal difference.
City respond but question marks remain
Erick Mombaerts urged Melbourne City to show more aggression and consistency after three defeats in December and his side responded – just – with a thrilling 3-2 win over Western United.
City oozed class and blew their Melbourne rivals away to lead 3-0 at half time, but the failings which have scuppered the club's Premiership claim in recent weeks, particularly in defeats to Victory and Sydney FC, were still exposed.
Dean Bouzanis and Harrison Delbridge conceded two penalties in as many minutes – the City defender seeing red for a handball in the box – and a match that saw Mombaerts' side dominate proceedings ended with them nearly throwing it all away.
"My first goal was we have to do a clean sheet," said the Frenchman.
"We didn't reach the goal, but we win. It was very important to win [but] we have to better control of the game at the end."
No Ninkovic, no problems for Sydney
Milos Ninkovic was rested by Sydney FC but that did not matter much for the Sky Blues, who retained their nine-point lead at the summit thanks to a 2-1 win over Adelaide United.
Paulo Retre – who had only two days earlier signed a contract extension with the reigning Champions – came up with a match-winning brace to sink Adelaide and keep Steve Corica's side motoring.
With a busy January schedule ahead and AFC Champions League commitments sure to provide Sydney with a real examination of their stocks over the latter half of the campaign, Saturday's clash was an early test of what is to come.
Corica has already issued a show of faith to the club's youngsters ahead of what is sure to be a gruelling period. One of Sydney's emerging prospects, forward Jordi Swibel almost grabbed a debut goal within seconds against Adelaide only to be denied by Paul Izzo.
Opportunity knocks for strugglers
Is the top six set for a shake up? If Adelaide United and Western United continue their recent run of poor form, you would suggest so.
Adelaide succumbed to their third straight defeat against Sydney and remain clinging on to sixth courtesy of a superior goal difference (+1) to seventh-placed Melbourne Victory.
Western United, on the other hand, have now tasted back to back defeats and fall into a precarious position with the bye coming up in Round 14.
It leaves Victory in the best position to capitalise, although the rest of the pack are not too far from striking distance. Brisbane Roar will hope to re-enter the mix after their season-igniting 2-1 win over Western Sydney Wanderers, for whom more dropped points is becoming a familiar story.
Similarly, Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets will have ground to make up after their defeats to Wellington and Victory.