A major yardstick for the Wellington Phoenix men midway through their pre-season.
The Phoenix will visit A-League heavyweights Melbourne City in the last 16 of the Australia Cup on Sunday afternoon.
The Nix have only beaten the three-time premiership winners twice in their last nine meetings, but both of those have come in the Cup the past two seasons.
The two sides were both tested by National Premier Leagues (NPL) opposition in the round of 32 of this year’s knock-out competition.
Reserves striker Josh Rudland scored in the penultimate minute of extra time to secure Wellington a 2-1 win over NPL Queensland side Peninsula Power at the start of this month, while Melbourne City required a 94th minute winner to overcome Oakleigh Cannons of NPL Victoria.
Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano says City are formidable opponents, headlined by Socceroos Jamie Maclaren and Mathew Leckie.
“They’ve got some outstanding players with Leckie and Maclaren still up front.” Italiano said.
“They’ve also recruited well locally with Terry Antonis and Alessandro Lopane, and Steve Ugarkovic I think he is one of the best sixes in the league. He showed that last year with us and he’s going into a really good environment.
“They’re going to be up there. I can’t see them not being in the top two this season. The expectation is always high there and they play good quality football.
“For me it’s a great opportunity to play someone that we emulate to be, if not better. It’s a really good way to see how our pre-season is going.”
It is also another opportunity for the Phoenix to showcase their new playing style against quality opposition.
“What I hope you’ll see is a lot of combination football, a lot of emphasis on keeping the ball, a lot of emphasis on distorting the opposition and finding space for our attackers,” Italiano said.
“You won’t see the end product on Sunday, but what you’ll hopefully see is the defensive effort will be more related to a press than a block.
“Obviously there will be times when the players are gassed and they need to block defend, but it’ll be more of an emphasis on keeping the ball in the attacking half.”
Giancarlo Italiano will be without four first-team squad members for the trip to Melbourne with Ben Old, Sam Sutton and Mohamed Al-Taay injured and Fin Conchie suspended, but the Phoenix are in a better position than they were seven days ago.
“Up until last week we probably had seven out of our 17 players ineligible through injury or suspension…then we’ve had a couple of other boys with niggles and sickness.
“We’ve struggled in terms of getting a starting XI, but I feel confident for the game that we’ll be fine and the young boys that will be on the bench will give us some value. And this is a good opportunity for them as well.”
Rudland and fellow reserve team players Ben Wallace, Isaac Hughes, Kaelin Nguyen, Fergus Gillion and Luke Supyk are all in line to travel, along with Jackson Manuel, who has re-joined the Nix after being on loan at Western Springs in Auckland.
Italiano has also held back Hughes, Alex Paulsen, Finn Surman, Lukas Kelly-Heald and Oskar van Hattum from joining the New Zealand under-23 team for their Olympic qualifiers in Auckland.
“Probably more than Baze (NZ coach Darren Bazeley) wanted, but unfortunately it’s circumstance.
“On the flip side someone like Isaac Hughes gets the opportunity to travel and if he gets some gametime it’ll be a good opportunity for him to stake a claim for a contract.
“There are a host of other boys that are in a similar mold. They’ve been going great at training, and I’ve been really happy with their output.
“All the boys that have been involved from day one of pre-season have had significant improvement. Sometimes they don’t see it because the progress is gradual, but it’s actually been immense over the last two months.
“A lot of those boys I would happily say are close to getting minutes in the A-League if given the opportunity. It’s a really good way forward because that also gives us a base of players that we can rely upon.”
Veteran forward David Ball is expected to make the trip to Melbourne, after missing the round of 32 tie with injury and being struck down by illness this week.
“Whether he starts or not is a different question. As much as I want to start him, I have to assess his welfare going into the season.
“I’d rather him be fit for the season and firing because he’s a very important player for us, as opposed to risking him when maybe the risk isn’t warranted.”
The round of 16 Australia Cup match between the Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne City is scheduled to kick-off at Jack Edwards Reserve in Melbourne at 2:00pm AEST (4:00pm NZT) on Sunday and will be broadcast live on 10 Play in Australia and on Football Australia’s YouTube Channel in New Zealand.
Wellington Phoenix squad: 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 9. Oskar ZAWADA, 10. David BALL, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD, 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 34. Josh RUDLAND, 36. Ben WALLACE, 37. Isaac HUGHES, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 41. Kaelin NGUYEN, 42. Fergus GILLION, 46. Luke SUPYK, 52. Jackson MANUEL.
Unavailable: 5. Fin CONCHIE (suspended), 8. Ben OLD (injured), 12. Mohamed AL-TAAY (injured), 19. Sam SUTTON (injured).