Jason Pine at Round 17

The Phoenix are about to enter a crucial three-game stretch which may even prove to be season-defining. After today’s clash with Adelaide United they visit Newcastle and then host Melbourne Heart. It’s a streak of games from which the Phoenix will be targeting a minimum of seven points to launch themselves into the top six for the first time in 2013/14.

The praise for the Phoenix since Christmas has been almost universal and they’ve put themselves in a position where involvement in the playoffs is now absolutely realistic. The return today of Costa Rican duo Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham from international duty is a huge boost, especially given their significant contribution to the 5-0 mauling of Melbourne Victory a fortnight ago.

Today’s visitors are the form team in the A-League at the moment. After the worst start in their history (just six points in their opening nine matches), Adelaide United have gone on a seven-game unbeaten streak which has seen most pundits lock them in as playoff participants. Similar to what happened this season at the Phoenix with the players adapting to Ernie Merrick’s style, it took a little while for Adelaide to come to grips with the possession-based tactics of new Spanish coach Josep Gombau, but now that they have, the results have started to impressively flow.

It’s a quirk of the A-League draw that these two teams are yet to clash this season. The Phoenix have played Brisbane Roar three times and Western Sydney Wanderers three times, but this is the first meeting of 2013/14 between the Phoenix and Adelaide United.

The Phoenix will have happy memories of Eden Park; last year they grabbed a 1-0 win against Perth Glory – one of the few bright spots in a wretched season – and two years ago these two sides played out a 1-1 draw here. In fact, this is the fourth time Adelaide United have played a Phoenix “home” game outside of Wellington; they also met twice at AMI Stadium in Christchurch before the awful earthquakes of 2011, with the Phoenix winning both matches.

Thankfully the conditions tonight are unlikely to match what the Phoenix faced in Brisbane last Friday when the humidity reached stifling levels. At half-time, players draped themselves in ice-packs and wet towels in an attempt to stay cool. Coach Merrick revealed Manny Muscat and Ben Sigmund had each lost 3.5kg in sweat during the match. And afterwards, the playing kit, which normally fits comfortably in two laundry bags, needed a third because of all the extra weight in the drenched shirts. No wonder the players looked a little fatigued during the closing stages of that game.