New Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano feels his team is being disrespected ahead of the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League.
The Italiano era officially starts at CommBank Stadium on Sunday, when the Phoenix men visit Western Sydney Wanderers in the opening round of the new season.
Despite making the finals in three of the past four years, the Nix aren’t tipped to challenge for the top six this season and many pundits are picking the team to be wooden spooners.
“I must be missing something,” Italiano told media on Friday. “They must have knowledge that I don’t have to make big calls like that.
“[Talk of] finishing last is something that will fuel all the players. I wouldn’t say it’s offensive, but I would say it’s very disrespectful especially with the quality we have in the squad, with the foreigners and also the good young players coming through who have played a lot of international games at youth level.
“It’s easy to point us out because we haven’t brought in new senior signings, but at the same time we’ve got a lot of quality in the squad.
“We’ve got a lot of good young players, there’s a good feel in the group and I think the fans will be excited once they see us play.”
He has a relatively settled squad, with 13 players returning from the 2022-23 campaign, headlined the club’s reigning men’s player of the year, Oskar Zawada, who scored 15 goals last season.
“That’s why I feel it’s a little bit disrespectful for people to think we’re going to finish last with one of the best strikers in the league.
“We’ve got experience and we’ve got good firepower so if we can be consistent in what we’re doing and believe in how we’re trying to play I think the results will come.”
Lukas Kelly-Heald, Fin Conchie, Isaac Hughes and Luke Supyk have all graduated from the club’s academy to secure first team contracts and Italiano has faith in his young players.
“They haven’t been promoted for the sake of being promoted. We’ve spent many hours and had many discussions on who the right fit is and whether they have that quality.
“For me the most important thing when it comes to young players is giving them an opportunity.
“There are going to be times during the season when we’re going to be tested and things might not go our way and that’s when we’ll see if I have enough belief in them to keep playing them. [But] that’s what I feel I’m strong at.”
Alex Paulsen, 21, is one of those players and has been vying with the experienced Australian goalkeeper Jack Duncan to be the men’s first-choice ‘keeper.
“I’m confident in both goalkeepers,” Italiano said. “Alex is an exciting young prospect, really good with his feet, confident and really good within the group.
“The same with Jack. Jack’s been doing excellent. He’s developed really well in the last two months. We feel like we’ve developed him to a point where we’re confident he can fit into our system as well.
“There’s really healthy competition between the two and whoever starts will do a good job for us.”
Unfortunately, Giancarlo Italiano doesn’t have a fully fit squad to pick from for round one.
Left back Sam Sutton and forward Oskar van Hattum have both been ruled out of Sunday’s match against the Wanderers with injuries, while Supyk and experienced forward David Ball are in doubt after picking up knocks in the team’s final pre-season match against Melbourne Victory last weekend.
Western Sydney convincingly won the last meeting between the two sides in April (4-0) and are endeavouring to win back-to-back matches against the Phoenix for the first time in five years.
The opening round Isuzu UTE A-League match between the Wellington Phoenix and Western Sydney Wanderers is scheduled to kick-off at CommBank Stadium in Sydney at 5:00pm (3:00pm AEDT) Sunday and will be broadcast LIVE on Sky Sport 7 in New Zealand and on Paramount+ and 10 Bold in Australia.
Most recent meeting: 21 April 2023 – Western Sydney Wanderers 4 Wellington Phoenix 0
All-time A-League head-to-head: Phoenix 12W, Wanderers 14W & 6D.
Wellington Phoenix men’s squad (two to be omitted): 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. Fin CONCHIE, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 8. Ben OLD, 9. Oskar ZAWADA, 10. David BALL, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Mo AL-TAAY, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD, 23. Luke SUPYK, 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 26. Isaac HUGHES, 34. Josh RUDLAND, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 48. Charlie BEALE, 52. Jackson MANUEL.
Unavailable: 19. Sam SUTTON (injured), 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM (injured).
Western Sydney Wanderers: 4. Doni GRDIC, 6. Marcelo (c), 7. Dylan PIERIAS, 9. Marcus ANTONSSON, 10. Milos NINKOVIC, 13. Tate RUSSELL, 14. Nicolas MILANOVIC, 16. Tom BEADLING, 17. Lachlan BROOK, 19. Jack CLISBY, 20. Lawrence THOMAS (gk), 21. Jorrit HENDRIX, 25. Josh BRILLANTE, 26. Brandon BORRELLO, 29. Dylan SCICLUNA, 31. Aidan SIMMONS, 33. Alex BONETIG, 36. Oscar PRIESTMAN, 40. Jack GIBSON (gk).