Isuzu UTE A-League Semi-Final First Leg Match Preview

The Wellington Phoenix plan to attack the first leg of their Isuzu UTE A-League semi-final in Melbourne.

The Phoenix play four-time champions Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park on Sunday evening before returning home for the second leg at Sky Stadium next Saturday.

Sunday will be the fourth time the two sides have met this season, with all three previous contests being closely-fought.

The Nix scored a stoppage time goal to beat the Victory 1-0 in Wellington last month after this season’s first two meetings finished in 1-1 draws, the first of which was at AAMI Park in November.

Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano wants to return home with a lead in the semi-final tie.

“I’m not going there to draw or grind a result,” Italiano told media at Wellington Airport on Friday afternoon.

“The mentality is whatever goal we can get is worth its weight in gold so we’re going there with the idea that we’re going to attack and be in the game.”

He concedes there will be moments during the game when they have to be defensive minded, but that doesn’t mean they will start with a back five, as they have on occasions this season.

“I don’t think we’ve used the five yet against Victory [this season]. Even though they play with wingers we feel as though what’s more important is defending through the central areas and pushing them wider. It makes it harder for their wingers to get more direct.

“At the moment from a tactical point you can rely on a back four. It’s not giving away too much. But don’t be surprised if we are in a five.”

Alex Paulsen makes a save at Wellington Phoenix training at NZCIS on Thursday. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

Italiano says semi-final football is completely different to the regular season and often determined by who makes the fewest mistakes.

“The most important thing is mentality. Mentality is such a broad, cliché word but…it’s getting the players to understand what’s coming.

“If they get prepared for that mentally then it puts them in a really positive mindset. I think we’ve done that well. The coaching staff and myself have really worked on that this season.

“And this week is no different. Keeping the players grounded that it’s just this one game, this one first half, this second half and if we keep moving in small steps and focus on the now I think that will mitigate the mistakes.”

Kosta Barbarouses (left) and David Ball at Wellington Phoenix training at NZCIS on Thursday. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

Giancarlo Italiano was challenged on his “just another game” mentality, given the Phoenix are on the verge of an A-League grand final for only the second time in the club’s history.

“For the fans, for the stakeholders [it is one of the biggest games]…but for us it’s still a 90 minute game against a bunch of other guys that have done really well and they’ll be thinking like that as well.

“Any talk about what’s on the line and the importance is going to take away from the actual game itself.

“The players naturally understand what the context of the game is. It is the biggest game of the season and next week will be even bigger and then hopefully the third game will be even bigger than that.

“But if we start thinking about the next game and the game after and talking about what’s going to happen in a couple of days I feel like it’s a distraction more than anything. It’s almost like a burden.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MAY 05: Victory supporter show their support during the A-League Men Elimination Final match between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City at AAMI Park, on May 05, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Jonathan DiMaggio/Getty Images)

Melbourne Victory are one of the best supported teams in the league and Italiano is looking forward to a hostile environment at AAMI Park.

“There’s part of me that is really going to enjoy that [and] soak it up.

“Atmosphere in football games is what makes football special. I watched Real Madrid and Bayern Munich the other day and I got a buzz just watching that off the TV.

“I actually said to my players during the week that’s going to be us. We’re either going to be Bayern or Real Madrid and the fans are going to get you through.

“That can work twofold. The fans can get you over the line, but they can also go against you, especially when you don’t get good home support when things are getting tough.

“It can be a negative and that’s something that we’ll play off. If we feel like the Melbourne crowd feels unsettled that they’re not in the game, we’ll use that to our advantage.”

Giancarlo Italiano looks on during Wellington Phoenix training at NZCIS on Thursday. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

Giancarlo Italiano has his entire first team squad to pick from, with 20 players making the trip to Melbourne on Friday afternoon.

“At the moment everyone’s available, which is good.

“My only concern at the moment is Youstin Salas. He has a bit of an issue in his calf that has gone all the way through to his foot.

“He’s been treated daily. We’re hoping that he’ll be available for minutes but we’ll make a call on that tomorrow (Saturday).”

Melbourne Victory will be forced to make at least one change to their starting XI with Frenchman Zinedine Machach suspended for both legs after being red carded in the elimination final last Sunday.

The first leg of the Isuzu UTE A-League semi-final between Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne Victory is scheduled to kick-off at AAMI Park in Melbourne at 6pm (4pm AEST) Sunday and will be broadcast LIVE on Sky Sport 3 in New Zealand and on Paramount+, 10 Bold and 10 Play in Australia.

Most recent meeting:
12 April 2024 – Wellington Phoenix 1 Melbourne Victory 0

All-time A-League head-to-head: Phoenix 12W, Victory 24W & 13D.

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, 9. Oskar ZAWADA, 10. David BALL, 11. Bozhidar KRAEV, 12. Mo AL-TAAY, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 15. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 17. Youstin SALAS, 18. Lukas KELLY-HEALD, 19. Sam SUTTON, 24. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 25. Jack DUNCAN (gk), 26. Isaac HUGHES, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 43. Matt SHERIDAN.
Unavailable: Nil.

Melbourne Victory squad (two to be omitted): 2. Jason GERIA, 3. Adama TRAORE, 5. Damien DA SILVA, 6. Leigh BROXHAM, 7. Chris IKONOMIDIS, 10. Bruno FORNAROLI, 11. Ben FOLAMI, 14. Connor CHAPMAN, 17. Nishan VELUPILLAY, 18. Fabian MONGE, 19. Daniel ARZANI, 20. Paul IZZO (gk), 21. Roderick MIRANDA (c), 22. Jake BRIMMER, 23. Salim KHELIFI, 25. Ryan TEAGUE, 27. Jordi VALADON, 28. Roly BONEVACIA, 37. Kasey BOS, 40. Christian SICILIANO (gk).
8. Zinedine MACHACH (suspended).

Main image: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.