A challenging prospect for the Wellington Phoenix at the start of their eighth foray into the renamed Australia Cup.
The Phoenix visit runaway National Premier Leagues (NPL) Tasmania leaders Devonport City Strikers on Wednesday night for a place in the last 16.
The Nix made a memorable run to the semi-finals of the Cup last season, when the competition was played during the 2021-22 A-League.
But the Australia Cup, known previously as the FFA Cup, is back to being held in between A-League seasons.
The Phoenix have been knocked out by NPL opposition in the round of 32 the last two times they have played Cup games in August.
Head coach Ufuk Talay has told media the challenge is that his team have only recently started their pre-season, while Devonport are match-hardened.
“You’re at a different level compared to when we played the Cup last year when it was in-season, because we played a few more competitive games and players are a lot fitter and stronger and ready to go,” Talay said.
“Whereas I don’t know if you saw the Sydney-Central Coast game that went to extra time, where players are not 100% ready and you don’t want to be 100% ready when you’ve still got a couple of months leading into the season.”
Devonport have been beaten just once in NPL Tasmania this season and that was back in March. They have scored 53 goals in 16 league matches and have conceded just 10.
“They’re a team that’s currently doing very well in their own competition. They’re 11 points clear at the top with five games to go.
“They’ve got some exciting players in their front third so it’s going to be a challenging game.
“They’re 16 games into their season and we’re at the start of our pre-season so it’s always going to be a challenge.”
Talay has identified attacking midfielder Ali Dulleh as one of the Devonport players his side need to be wary of.
“He’s one of their players who plays on the left-hand side that’s very tricky on the ball. He likes to take on players one vs one.
“He’s one of their most consistent players but overall they work well as a team and that is probably why they’re in the position they’re in.
“There’s no easy games when it comes to these Australia Cup games and we’re expecting a good game tomorrow evening.”
The squad made the long journey to Devonport on Monday, via Sydney and Launceston.
“It’s nice to go to new places, travel a little bit and see different areas. This is my first time in Devonport.
“It’s a beautiful place. It actually reminds me of New Zealand a little bit with all of the greenery around and also the freshness as well.”
Heavy rain and strong winds are forecast for Devonport tomorrow.
“We’ve had a lot of rain in Wellington recently so I think the boys will adjust quite easily.”
The Phoenix will without Alex Rufer, David Ball and Ben Old due to injuries, while new signings Steven Ugarkovic and Lucas Mauragis are cup-tied after playing for their former clubs in the playoff round.
“It’s a strange one that can possibly be changed,” Talay said. “Or players need to make a decision whether they play in those games or not if they’re going to decide to leave their club.”
Bulgarian international Bozhidar Kraev is in line to make his debut for the club, less than two weeks after joining the club.
“We’ll try to give him some minutes within the game. He’s only been with us for a short time so we don’t expect him to start and play 90 minutes.
“He’s doing some extra stuff to try and catch up to where the boys are currently at but he’s looking good and he’s settled in quite well.”
Academy players Riley Bidois, Jackson Manuel, Noah Karunaratne and Marco Lorenz will also be amongst the matchday squad after travelling with the first team to Tasmania.
“We’ll put out our strongest team. We’ll put out our fittest team, the boys that have been on the park the most.
“The Cup is important to us. It gives us competitive games and it gives us something to work towards.
“We came close last year and it’s a competition you can win a trophy at the end of it.”
The round of 32 Australia Cup match between the Wellington Phoenix and Devonport City Strikers is scheduled to kick-off at Valley Road in Devonport at 7:30pm AEST (9:30pm NZT) and will be broadcast live on 10 Play in Australia and on Football Australia’s My Football YouTube Channel in New Zealand.
Wellington Phoenix squad: 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. Steven UGARKOVIC, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 8. Ben OLD, 10. David BALL, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Lucas MAURAGIS, 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 17. Callan ELLIOT, 18. Ben WAINE, 19. Sam SUTTON, 20. Oli SAIL (gk), 21. Joshua LAWS, 23. Clayton LEWIS, 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 34. Jackson MANUEL, 35. Noah KARUNARATNE, 36. Riley BIDOIS, 39. Marco LORENZ, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk)
Unavailable: 5. Steven UGARKOVIC (Cup tied), 8. Ben OLD (injured), 10. David Ball (injured), 12. Lucas MAURAGIS (Cup tied), 14. Alex RUFER (injured)