Isuzu UTE A-League Round 18 Match Preview

Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano is sticking to the formula which has proven so successful through the first two thirds of the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League.

The Phoenix are five points clear at the top of the ladder heading into Saturday night’s match against Perth Glory at HBF Park in Perth.

It’s start of the final third of the regular season, but Italiano is refusing to discuss the possibility of leading the club to its first piece of silverware.  

“I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” he told media via zoom from Perth on Friday. “I know it’s cliché, but what’s worked for us at the start and what’s working for us now is making sure that we go game by game and we focus on the stuff that we can control.

“It’s worked well to this date and if you’re starting to talk about championships and expectations, it creates an extra layer of complexity, that unless you do it then you don’t know how to manage it.

“I feel like we need to be really, really smart and just take every game as it is and then where we fall, we fall.”

Statisticians have cast doubt over whether Wellington can sustain their results over the final third of the season.

The Nix average just over 10 shots per game, the fewest of any A-League team in the 2023-24 season and a club-record low since Opta began collecting such data in 2012.

They have also outperformed their xG (expected goals) tally, scoring almost five more goals than the quality of chances suggest they should, and no A-League side can boast a higher positive differential between expected goals against and actual goals conceded than the Phoenix’s 7.6.

“It sounds like you’re saying we’re a bit lucky,” Italiano said when asked about the stats.

“If you want my honest take on xG and stats and all that, I think they’ll give you a picture without giving you the detail.

“If a team has 20 shots in a game compared to a team that’s had two, the team that’s had two shots could have scored two goals and is just defending and the team that has 20 shots may have had all those shots from areas that they’ve never scored from before.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – FEBRUARY 15: Coach Giancarlo Italiano and captain Alex Rufer look on during a Wellington Phoenix Training Session at NZCIS on February 15, 2024 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“When it comes to these stats, I feel like it skews the picture [and] it gives the narrative that may not be there.

“I don’t look at that and go ‘we need to be better, or we need to defend more crosses here’. No, we have a certain model that we like, we stick to it, we try to refine it, we work it to the best of what our players can execute and if we feel like it’s not working, we’ll lose. That’s the best gauge.”

Giancarlo Italiano has also gone into detail about the team’s football philosophy, which “is all about control”.

“And control means that you know exactly what’s going on in the game at all times.

“And that also means you don’t need to be dogmatic and have the ball the whole time in order dominate a game, because that’s also very cliché.

“Do you have to defend well? Yes. And when you have the ball do you have to be effective? Yes. We try to fuse both.”

Kosta Barbarouses at a Wellington Phoenix training session at NZCIS on Friday, February 16. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

Italiano will be without top scorer Kosta Barbarouses on Saturday night.

Barbarouses, who has found the back of the net 10 times this season, has a low grade tear in his calf and is sitting out the match as a precaution.

However, club captain Alex Rufer, fullback Tim Payne and attacking midfielder Bozhidar Kraev are in line to return against Perth after missing Sunday’s 2-1 win over Macarthur FC with injuries.

Rufer and Payne are expected to start, while Kraev “should have some minutes off the bench”.

Tim Payne at a Wellington Phoenix training session at NZCIS on Friday, February 16. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

Perth Glory enter the round in 10th place, but are the A-League’s top goal scorers, having found the back of the net 35 times in 17 matches, led by Adam Taggart who has scored 12 goals.

“There’s no coincidence that they’re the highest scoring team. They have a lot of players that can score.

“They have some real firepower, they move the ball quite well and structurally I like the way they build up.

“Even though they’re in a four, they build up in three now [and] they load the line quite well with six players.

“At home, new owner, new context so it’s going to be a tough game.”

Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano talks to Oskar van Hattum during a training session at NZCIS. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

The round 18 Isuzu UTE A-League match between the Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory is scheduled to kick-off at HBF Park in Perth at 11:45pm (6:45pm AWST) Saturday and will be broadcast LIVE on Sky Sport 7 in New Zealand and on Paramount+ in Australia.

Most recent meeting:
14 January 2024 – Perth Glory 3 Wellington Phoenix 4

All-time A-League head-to-head: Phoenix 20W, Glory 20W & 11D.

Wellington Phoenix squad
(one to be omitted): 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. Fin CONCHIE, 6. Tim PAYNE, 8. Ben OLD, 9. Oskar ZAWADA, 10. David BALL, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Mo AL-TAAY, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 17. Youstin SALAS, 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD, 23. Luke SUPYK, 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 26. Isaac HUGHES, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 43. Matt SHERIDAN, 51. Gabriel SLOANE-RODRIGUES.
Unavailable: 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES (injured), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON (injured), 19. Sam SUTTON (injured).

Perth Glory squad (one to be omitted): 1. Oli SAIL (gk), 3. Jacob MUIR, 7. Stefan COLAKOVSKI, 9. David WILLIAMS, 13. Cameron COOK (gk), 14. Riley WARLAND, 15. Aleksandar SUSNJAR, 16. Josh RAWLINS, 17. Jarrod CARLUCCIO, 19. Trent OSTLER, 20. Giordano COLLI, 22. Adam TAGGART (co-c), 23. Daniel BENNIE, 27. Jayden GORMAN, 28. Kaelan MAJEKODUNMI, 29. Darryl LACHMAN, 31. Joel ANASMO, 34. Andriano LEBIB, 77. Bruce KAMAU.
2. Johnny KOUTROUMBIS (injured), 5. Mark BEEVERS (co-c) (injured), 8. Mustafa AMINI (injured), 11. Adam ZIMARINO (injured), 21. Antonis MARTIS (injured).

Main image: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.