Isuzu UTE A-League Round 23 Match Preview

Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano has labelled Saturday’s potential premiership decider against Central Coast Mariners as “just a game”.

The match at Industree Group Stadium in Gosford has been billed as the biggest regular season game in Phoenix history.

The Nix hold a three point lead at the top of the Isuzu UTE A-League ladder, with four rounds remaining, and are pitted against their challengers for the Premiers Plate.

“It’s another normal game,” Italiano told media at Wellington Airport on Friday afternoon. “It’s three points. If I was to give it more value I’d give it more points, but it’s only worth three.

“As important as it is, the last game against Brisbane was also worth three and we dug deep and got those points and it’ll be the same on Saturday.

“If I go into the game thinking it’s a grand final or anything like that it takes away from the fact that it’s just a game.

“We’ve just got to work as hard as we can, produce the performance that we want to produce and let the football gods dictate what the outcome is.”

And Italiano has been treating it “like a normal week” for his players, many of whom haven’t played in a bigger match in their fledgling careers.

“I don’t give it context where…it’s one vs two and the season’s on the line because that’s not us.

“I say this every week and I’m like a broken record: I do take it week-by-week.

“We try to stick to our values, stick to our playing model and that’s what works.

“If I come into this game and I make it bigger than what it is then it becomes a distraction, causes anxiousness and you lose focus on what’s really important and that’s the game itself.”

Wellington Phoenix captain Alex Rufer looks on at training at NZCIS on the eve of the top of the table match against Central Coast Mariners. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

The Phoenix will be without their club captain on Saturday evening after Alex Rufer was banned for one match following his sending off against Brisbane Roar on Easter Sunday.

Rufer “is a massive loss”, but Giancarlo Italiano is backing others to step into his leadership role.

“I like to think we’re not completely dependent on one player. For me it’s not about that, it’s more about the collective, the mindset and making sure everyone’s on the same page.

“We’ve had Rufs out before and we’ve also got results. The leadership comes from action and behaviour and the whole group as a whole are very good in that respect.

“They all look after each other and there’s a lot of positive body language with the players when something happens in the game, whether it’ll be positive or negative they’re always behind each other.

“That’s the sort of leadership that I’m after. I’m not really after one person that’s a focal point and motivates. I’m not a big believer in that.

“A healthy team is one that the underbelly is confident and ready for any challenge.”

Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano chats to Kosta Barbarouses at training at NZCIS on Friday. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

And Italiano believes his midfield is “still very solid” despite Alex Rufer’s absence.

“The rest of our midfield is very, very good.

“Nicholas Pennington’s come back from injury and is starting to find his groove again. We’ve got Mo Al-Taay, we’ve got Youstin [Salas] who can play in that role.

“We also have Oldie (Ben Old), potentially Sutts (Sam Sutton) and Lukas [Kelly-Heald] that can play in that role as well.”

Wellington Phoenix fullback Tim Payne has rejoined training this week after sitting out the Easter Sunday match against Brisbane Roar with a hamstring strain. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

Wellington are welcoming back All Whites fullback Tim Payne just three weeks after he suffered a hamstring injury against Sydney FC.

“The idea is that he’ll get gametime. He’s not ready to start so he’ll come off the bench.

“It’s a little bit quicker than expected which has been fantastic for us and the team more importantly.

“And the fact that we’re a little bit short because of Rufs’ suspension it comes at a good time.”

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – FEBRUARY 06: Oskar Takoda van Hattum of the Wellington Phoenix controls the ball against Brian Kaltak of the Central Coast Mariners during the A-League Men round 12 match between Wellington Phoenix and Central Coast Mariners at Sky Stadium, on February 06, 2024, in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

The two sides last met on Waitangi Day at Sky Stadium, with the match finishing in a scoreless stalemate.

In fact three of the last four matches between the two sides have finished in draws. Another deadlock would keep the Phoenix three points clear at the top of the ladder with three rounds remaining.

“A draw would be a good result if we merited a draw and didn’t deserve to win.

“What I mean by that is if the opportunity is there to win and we don’t win, I’d be disappointed.”

The round 23 Isuzu UTE A-League match between Wellington Phoenix and Central Coast Mariners is scheduled to kick-off at Industree Group Stadium in Gosford at 7:30pm (5:30pm AEDT) Saturday and will be broadcast LIVE on Sky Sport Select in New Zealand and on Paramount+ in Australia.

Wellington Phoenix players warm-up for training at NZCIS on Friday. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

Most recent meeting: 6 February 2024 – Wellington Phoenix 0 Central Coast Mariners 0

All-time A-League head-to-head: Phoenix 19W, Mariners 18W & 10D.

Wellington Phoenix squad
(two to be omitted)3. Finn SURMAN, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. Fin CONCHIE, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 8. Ben OLD, 10. David BALL, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Mo AL-TAAY, 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 17. Youstin SALAS, 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD, 19. Sam SUTTON, 23. Luke SUPYK, 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 39. Seth KARUNARATNE, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 43. Matt SHERIDAN, 51. Gabriel SLOANE-RODRIGUES.
Unavailable: 9. Oskar ZAWADA (injured), 14. Alex RUFER (c) (suspended), 26. Isaac HUGHES (injured).

Central Coast Mariners squad (two to be omitted): 2. Mikael DOKA, 3. Brian KALTAK, 4. Josh NISBET, 6. Max BALARD, 7. Christian THEOHAROUS, 9. Alou KUOL, 11. Angel TORRES, 15. Storm ROUX, 16. Harry STEELE, 17. Jing REEC, 18. Jacob FARRELL, 20. Danny VUKOVIC (gk) (c), 22. Ronald BARCELLOS, 23. Dan HALL, 26. Brad TAPP, 28. Will WILSON, 30. Jack WARSHAWSKY (gk), 33. Nathan PAULL, 39. Miguel DI PIZIO, 99. Ryan EDMONDSON.
5. Noah SMITH (injured), 27. Sasha KUZEVSKI (injured).

Main image: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.