Big crowd, big game, big hopes

SATURDAY night’s epic match between the Wellington Phoenix and Adelaide United in Christchurch provided a checklist of milestones for the New Zealand-based club.

SATURDAY night-s epic match between the Wellington Phoenix and Adelaide United in Christchurch provided a checklist of milestones for the New Zealand-based club.

A record-breaking crowd and a first ever win against the Reds in the first Hyundai A-League match in Christchurch – the Garden City played host to an incredible event.

While both achievements are significant in themselves, one thing sits above all on the “to-do” list – a historic appearance by the Phoenix in the Hyundai A-League playoffs.

The gutsy 1-0 win against Adelaide – the Wellington club-s first in nine attempts – has the Phoenix on the cusp of their first appearance in the competition finals. Should the Phoenix make the top six, it will be the first time a New Zealand-based club has featured at the business end of a professional trans-Tasman football competition.

With 19,258 fans roaring them on, the Phoenix dispatched Adelaide at AMI Stadium to put themselves tantalisingly close to playoffs football. It was Jon McKain-s 21st-minute strike that split the two teams, the former Socceroos defender nailing a critical goal – just his second in 33 matches for the Phoenix – to put his team on the cusp of the playoffs.

There was plenty of credit too for Phoenix goalkeeper Liam Reddy, who pulled off some stunning saves to keep a clean sheet in Christchurch.

The new Deans Stand at AMI Stadium was packed with passionate Phoenix fans on Saturday night, the crowd figure of 19,258 eclipsing the Phoenix previous record crowd of 18,345 set in 2007/08, also against Adelaide, at the Phoenix-s Wellington stronghold of Westpac Stadium.

It was a staggering turnout and the big crowd played an integral role, roaring the Phoenix on to a win that has gone a long way toward helping the team and coach Ricki Herbert realise their ambition of finals footy.

With the Central Coast Mariners losing 3-1 the Perth Glory and dropping out of playoffs contention, only the Brisbane Roar and North Queensland Fury have any chance of spoiling the playoffs party for the Phoenix. With a four-point buffer over the Roar and with just two regular season games to play, the fifth-placed Phoenix face Gold Coast United at Skilled Park on Sunday knowing that a win will guarantee them a place in the final six.

The Phoenix drew 1-1 away to the Gold Coast in round nine before demolishing the Glitter Strip boys 6-0 at Westpac Stadium in round 12.

Phoenix head coach Ricki Herbert said his team would be gunning for two wins from their final two matches (the last against the Mariners at Westpac Stadium on February 12) to push for a place in the top four and a home semifinal.

“We set the goal that making the playoffs was the basic requirement this season. Should we do that, it-s definitely not a case of ‘job done-. We-d love to make the top four and secure home advantage because we-re very, very tough to beat at Westpac Stadium.

“Our attitude and belief is that we have the team that could go all the way.”

The Phoenix haven-t been bettered in their previous 14 matches at Westpac Stadium, notching up a home record that is the envy of all Hyundai A-League clubs. Taking on the Mariners in what could be a critical final match at the “Ring of Fire” will be a huge fillip for the hosts.

“We saw in Christchurch just how much a big, supportive crowd can influence a match,” said Phoenix chief executive Tony Pignata. “Speaking to the players after the game at AMI Stadium, all of them were adamant that the fans that got them over the line. That-s what creates home advantage and we-re looking forward to a big crowd being on hand at Westpac Stadium on February 12 to witness what could be a historic match for the club and the country.”