25 Apr 2015

The Phoenix: Time to finally rise?

6:00 am on 25 April 2015

A top two finish beckons for the Wellington Phoenix in the A-League competition as they head into the final round of regular season matches this weekend.

Ernie Merrick

Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick Photo: Photosport

No team has won the title without finishing first or second during the regular season but the Phoenix are already guaranteed a finals play-off spot.

They are currently fourth but will leapfrog Perth Glory - win or lose - on Sunday, with Perth ruled out of contention for salary cap breaches.

If the Phoenix beat Sydney FC on Sunday, they can displace them in second spot.

The Phoenix striker Nathan Burns celebrates a goal.

Welilngton Phoenix striker Nathan Burns - a key part of the team's attack strategy. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Finishing in the top two would give the Phoenix a week off in the opening round of the top six playoffs.

But that's a double edged sword. A week off and a chance to rest up and get over any niggling injuries from the semi-finals or a chance to simply go off the boil?

It's hard to know with this side, given their recent performances.

Last weekend's 3-2 win over the struggling Central Coast Mariners came five minutes into stoppage time, and the Phoenix failed to score in their three previous matches, which included two losses and a draw.

One of those losses was against Sydney FC, and just how they play this weekend could well indicate whether they are genuine title contenders.

The last few games, though, would suggest otherwise.

Possession, retention, structure

A big part of Ernie Merrick's coaching philosophy is about possession and retaining it. He's tried to build a team around that approach.

But, in recent matches, the Phoenix have been guilty of turning possession over far too easily and putting their defence under pressure.

Merrick wanted his side to use the last few rounds of the regular season as a build-up to the finals. He talked of playing conservatively in the opening 15 minutes, and taking a structured approach that would allow them to absorb pressure early on and assess the playing approach of the opposition.

But in four of the past five games, they've conceded a goal in the opening 15 minutes.

With striker Nathan Burn sitting second on the competition's goal-scoring ladder for the season, opposition sides have focused on shutting him down, at times double-teaming him.

That's proved problematic for the Phoenix, who have then struggled to adopt a plan B, something that's been at the front of Merrick's mind this week.

"As soon as the team starting playing the same way, week in, week out and you become predictable, then the opposition close you down... Focus at training this week has been about plan B and sometimes plan C."

The playmaking ability of Roly Bonevacia is also vital but he needs support from the likes of Michael McGlinchey.

Michael McGlinchey (L) of the Phoenix celebrates a goal with team mate Nathan Burns.

The Phoenix need to see more goal celebrations from Michael McGlinchey. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

McGlinchey had a convoluted transfer process to the Phoenix at the start of the season, and had a leading hand in the club's good form in the first half of the season, but he's been missing in action in the latter part of the season.

He needs to reassert himself come finals-time.

One win in the past four games, though, suggests the Phoenix won't make the grand final.

But the fact they're in grand final contention shows how far they have come this season and how much expectation has grown. This has been their most successful season as a club and that needs to be remembered.

The 2015/16 season may be the time the Phoenix truly rise.

Finals facts:

  • Week 1: Top two teams at the end of the regular season miss the first week and go straight through to the semi-finals on 8 May and 10 May.
  • Week 1: Elimination finals made up of teams who finished in positions three through six. Losers in first week are eliminated from the finals series.
  • Week 2: Melbourne Victory (top-placed team) play the lowest placed team in the regular season who won in the elimination finals
  • Week 2: The second-placed team - as at the end of the regular season - plays the highest placed team at the end of the regular season who won in the elimination finals.
  • Week 3: Two winners of the semi-finals meet in the grand final on 17 May.
  • No team outside the top two at the end of the regular season has won the A-League.
  • Statistically, the second-placed team has a 70 percent chance of making the grand final
  • In the 2009/10 season, the Wellington Phoenix had two elimination finals, getting 24,267 and 32,792 at Westpac Stadium.
  • In Elimination Final 1 in season 2009/10, the Wellington Phoenix beat Perth Glory 4-2 in a penalty shoot-out.
  • In Elimination Final 2 in season 2009/10, the Wellington Phoenix beat Newcastle Jets 3-1, with Paul Ifill and Eugene Dadi scoring in extra time.