The Wellington Phoenix are determined to capitalise on their remaining home matches as they bid for a return to the Isuzu UTE A-League finals.
The fifth-placed Phoenix host their nearest challengers Sydney FC at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday afternoon.
It is Wellington’s antepenultimate regular season match in Aotearoa, with another game at Eden Park next month after they open April at Sky Stadium.
Head coach Ufuk Talay says it’s very important the Nix collect points in their home matches.
“You saw the result last night with Perth beating Western Sydney so we have an opportunity to pick up three points and go on equal points with Western Sydney, who are currently on top of us,” Talay told media at Eden Park on Saturday morning.
“We’re coming to the back end of the season and picking up points are very important for us to finish where we want to finish.”
Talay has made it clear he believes the Phoenix are a top four team and captain Alex Rufer has echoed that sentiment on the eve of this weekend’s match.
“As a team we believe we are good enough to be in the top four,” Rufer told media.
“But it’s very, very close and one slip up in terms of a result you could be straight down to seventh or drop from fourth to sixth.
“For us it’s about maintaining our consistency, maintaining the way that we’re playing and keep picking up points.”
A top four finish would mean the Nix would play a playoff game in Wellington for the first time in eight years.
It’s a “massive” motivating factor for the players.
“We’ve been away for two years,” Rufer said. “It was a very, very tough two years for us and there’s nothing better than playing at home, especially in those big games.
“I think every game for us now leading into the finals is a big game.
“We need to pick up as many points as we can [at home] and then pick up as many points as we can away from home too.
“It’s very, very close this year but we’re ready for the challenge.
“It’s exciting and there’s pressure, but we thrive under pressure and that’s why we’re here.
“Three games left at home, and we’ve got to pick up maximum points.”
The Phoenix are endeavouring to win back-to-back A-League matches against Sydney FC for the first time in over a decade.
The last meeting between the Phoenix and Sydney FC in early January was full of drama.
Wellington eventually prevailed 1-0 despite finishing the match with nine men and conceding two penalties in second-half stoppage time.
Both Rufer and Talay hope Sunday’s game is easier on their hearts.
“Hopefully not as intense, but I’m guessing the game is going to be an intense game as both teams are fighting for three points,” Rufer said.
“Hopefully not as fiery where we get two players sent off, but Eden Park has been good to us previously so hopefully we get the same outcome that we’ve had here previously,” Talay said.
The Nix have yet to be beaten at New Zealand’s national stadium, with five wins and four draws in their nine previous matches at the ground since first playing at Eden Park in 2011.
Inform striker Oskar Zawada trained with the squad on Saturday, but will fly back to Wellington for the birth of his child if his wife Patricia goes into labour.
Otherwise, Clayton Lewis (knee) and Sam Sutton (hamstring) are the only squad members side-lined with injuries.
The 20th round Isuzu UTE A-League match between the Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC is scheduled to kick-off at Eden Park in Auckland at 3:00pm (1:00pm AEDT) on Sunday and will be broadcast LIVE on Sky Sport 1 & 7 in New Zealand and on Paramount+ in Australia.
Most recent A-League meeting: 7 January 2023 – Sydney FC 0 Wellington Phoenix 1
All-time A-League head-to-head: Phoenix 14W, Sydney 26W & 6D.
Wellington Phoenix squad: 3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. Steven UGARKOVIC, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 8. Ben OLD, 9. Oskar ZAWADA, 10. David BALL, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Lucas MAURAGIS, 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 14. Alex RUFER, 15. Nikko BOXALL, 17. Callan ELLIOT, 20. Oli SAIL (gk), 21. Joshua LAWS, 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 31. Yan SASSE, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk).
Unavailable: 19. Sam SUTTON (injured), 23. Clayton LEWIS (injured).
Sydney FC squad: 1. Andrew REDMAYNE (gk), 2. James DONACHIE, 3. Joel KING, 4. Alex WILKINSON (c), 6. Jack RODWELL, 8. Paulo RETRE, 10. Joe LOLLEY, 11. Robert MAK, 12. Pat WOOD, 17. Anthony CACERES, 18. Diego CABALLO, 20. Thomas HEWARD-BELLE (gk), 21. Alex PARSONS, 23. Rhyan GRANT, 25. Jaiden KUCHARSKI, 26. Luke BRATTAN, 29. Aaron GURD, 30. Adam PAVLESIC (gk), 31. Oscar PRIESTMAN, 32. Matthew SCARCELLA.
Unavailable: 9. Adam LE FONDRE (injured), 19. Adrian SEGECIC (international duty), 22. Max BURGESS (suspended), 28. Jake GIRDWOOD-REICH (international duty).