Durante: ‘Tis the season

WELLINGTON Phoenix FC got the Christmas festivities underway against the Central Coast Mariners and now the goal is to keep the party rolling against the Queensland Roar on Sunday.

The Phoenix head to Brisbane ahead of Sunday-s match on a high, having dispatched the Mariners 1-0 in a gutsy performance at Westpac Stadium last weekend to put themselves in the thick of Hyundai A-League 2008/09 playoffs contention with five matches remaining.

Phoenix skipper Andrew Durante said confidence was high in the team and that everyone was looking forward to a couple of days off before regrouping ahead of the showdown at Suncorp Stadium.

“We-ve got a little break over Christmas time and the boys will enjoy some time with their families. We probably deserve a little bit of time out – we-ve been doing well lately. But I-m sure the boys won-t over-indulge or do anything silly. We-re all professionals and we-ve got to be focused on getting three points on Sunday.”

A win will further enhance the Phoenix-s playoffs potential, with the Wellington club aiming to create history by making the top four come season-s end.

“If we can get three points it-ll be huge for us,” said Durante. “We-ll be in the top four come the New Year and that what we-ve aimed at achieving as a club. The way things are going, if we stay committed and put in performances like we did last week then there-s no reason why we can among the leaders.”

Last weekend-s win against the Mariners was something of a turning point for the Phoenix, who scored early and were resolute in defence to deny the visitors throughout.

“It was fantastic stuff by the boys,” Durante said of the victory, which came courtesy of Shane Smeltz-s second-minute goal.

“It was tough work for the back four and the defensive midfielders. We were under a lot of pressure but good sides should be able to hold 1-0 leads and we showed that we could do it. Probably earlier in the season we might have thrown that away, so we-ve showed that we-ve come a long way.

“We-re definitely a team with a lot of confidence at the moment and a lot of willpower to win games.”

The Phoenix-s previous matches against the Roar have yielded a 1-1 draw and a 1-0 loss, both at Westpac Stadium. In the latter match the Phoenix created a plethora of scoring chances only to finish empty-handed.

“I think things are quite a bit different for us now,” said Durante. “We-re very confident that if we get an early goal we can hold a lead or even if we concede a goal that we can come back and grab two. Before we might have been wondering where the goals were going to come from, now everyone is stepping up and looking to score.”

However, as well as a classy Roar side to contend with, the Phoenix also face a poor record at Suncorp, likely sweltering conditions and a parochial Queensland crowd.

“The conditions will be difficult,” said Durante. “Obviously the heat will be a big factor and the crowd will be very vocal. It-s a great stadium and the fans are right in your face. There-ll be a lot of sledging going on from the Queenslanders, so it won-t be easy. But we-ve learned a lot in the past few weeks in terms of keeping our minds on the task at hand and getting results, so we-re well prepared to take these guys on.”

Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert has signalled his intention to make minimal changes to the squad that beat the Mariners, with only goalkeeper Mark Paston added in place of short-term injury cover Scott Higgins. Defender Ben Sigmund has also been bracketed in a 16-man squad for the trip to Brisbane, though he remains under an injury cloud.

“I don-t think we-ll be far away from the squad we used against the Central Coast,” Herbert said. “Ben may be another week away, but we-ll assess that on Boxing Day. I-m sure he-ll be back and ready. He-s been an integral part of what we-ve achieved this season and we-ll give him every chance to see if he comes through. This issue is that we-re talking about five matches to go and we won-t be rushing him in for one game.”

Wellington Phoenix squad: 1. Mark PASTON (gk), 2. Jeremy CHRISTIE, 3. Tony LOCHHEAD, 4. Jon McKAIN, 5. Karl DODD, 6. Tim BROWN, 7. Leo BERTOS, 9. Shane SMELTZ, 10. Michael FERRANTE, 11. DANIEL, 13. Troy HEARFIELD, 15. Adam KWASNIK, 18. Ben SIGMUND, 20. Glen MOSS (gk), 22. Andrew DURANTE (captain), 25. Manny MUSCAT. * one to be omitted.

In: 1. Mark PASTON (gk, return from injury), 18. Ben SIGMUND (return from injury).
Out: 30. Scott HIGGINS (gk, short-term injury replacement contract completed).
Unavailable: 17. Vince LIA (knee – season).

*Head-to-head: All matches (played 5): Queensland Roar wins 3, Wellington Phoenix wins 0 (2 draws). In Brisbane (played 2): Queensland Roar wins 2, Wellington Phoenix wins 0 (0 draws).