Tim Brown’s late winner against Gold Coast United on Sunday night finally gave the Phoenix a chalk mark in the ‘W’ column after six previous matches on Australian soil this season had yielded just two points.
The sighs of relief could be heard from this side of the Tasman. The inability to secure away wins has become such a talking point that it threatened to derail the Phoenix’s season, both through the mental weight of the continuing away-day failures and the fact that points simply weren’t being picked up on the road.
Of course, a last-gasp victory over the side which is four points adrift at the foot of the table doesn’t mean the travel blues have been completely cured, but it’s certainly better than losing in Australia all the time.
On the overall balance of things, a draw would probably have been a fairer result on Sunday. Gold Coast had as many – if not more – chances, and were kept scoreless by a combination of their own wastefulness, returning Phoenix goalkeeper Mark Paston and scrambling defence from Manny Muscat on one memorable occasion. But, as Brown said afterwards, they’ll take the win.
Who knows? The confidence gained from picking up three away points instead of one – or more regularly, none – might be part of the ongoing solution. Momentum is a big thing in football, and if the Phoenix can now break another long-standing duck and win consecutive away matches by accounting for Newcastle on Friday night, that momentum will have been gained.
They’ll certainly need it as they look forward to the last nine matches of the regular season. February presents a particularly daunting schedule with visits to Adelaide, Central Coast and Sydney and a solitary home match against the defending champions, Brisbane Roar.
The solidity of the Phoenix back four has been a big feature of the side’s success this season with skipper Andrew Durante marshalling Muscat, Ben Sigmund and Tony Lochhead in typically efficient fashion. Just 20 goals conceded in 17 matches is a pleasing record and with Paston having successfully negotiated a return to the side after three months biding his time on the bench, opposition strikers won’t find it easy to breach the Phoenix backline.
The issue now around the back four isn’t one of form – it’s suspension. Durante, Muscat and Lochhead are all on four yellow cards, meaning one more will earn them an automatic one-match ban. The slate is cleared after 21 matches, which means this trio – and Tim Brown who has also received four bookings – will walk the tightrope for the next four games.
History would suggest it’s likely at least one of them will pick up a booking in the next four matches, which will necessitate a change at the back. While Brent Griffiths and Jimmy Downey are solid squad players, there hasn’t been much to suggest they’re on the cusp of breaking into the starting side, so bringing either or both of them in to cover a suspended player – or players – would be an unwelcome disruption.
One rather unpalatable scenario would be the suspension of more than one of them for the same match. For argument’s sake, what if both Durante and Muscat are booked this week against the Jets, and are therefore unavailable for the crucial home match against Melbourne Heart next Sunday? That might lead to a back four of, say, Downey, Sigmund, Griffiths and Lochhead. In the event of Muscat’s unavailability, Vince Lia might be a better option at right-back, a position he filled with reasonable success against Newcastle just before Christmas.
Unlike the back five, there’s now real competition for positions in the front six. If fit and available, you’d expect Brown, Paul Ifill and Dani Sanchez to play, but there are plenty of options for the remaining three shirts in the starting side.
Lia is under real pressure from Alex Smith for his holding midfield spot. Leo Bertos was omitted from the starting eleven for the first time this season against Gold Coast but looked sharp when he came on. Nick Ward always does a job. Daniel has a new lease of life and has been excellent in tandem with Sanchez. Chris Greenacre never lets you down. Mirjan Pavlovic is itching for the chance to start. Young kiwi Cameron Lindsay is impressing in training and putting himself in the frame for a first team debut.
That’s eight guys competing for three spots. It certainly makes for a nicer headache for coach Ricki Herbert than the ones he had earlier in the season. There were times when he struggled to find fifteen players to fill out a match-day roster. Now, he’s got some real selection dilemmas and options.
Nothing much changes in the A-League in terms of the tightness of the competition. With the exception of Gold Coast, the other sides currently sitting outside the playoff spots are only a win away from entering the top six. Just seven points separate third from ninth. Against this backdrop, every point is vital and with all ten teams still harbouring realistic ambitions of featuring in the post-season, the Phoenix simply must keep getting results on both sides of the ditch.