Men’s Match Preview: Wellington Phoenix vs. Sydney FC

Alex Rufer will play his 100th A-League match on Saturday evening, when the Wellington Phoenix put their five-match unbeaten run on the line against Sydney FC.

The milestone has been eight years in the making for the Phoenix captain, who had doubts whether this day would come after playing just 11 league matches in his first four seasons with the club.

“I always had very, very big goals and big dreams and I always wanted to play as many games as possible,” Rufer said.

“But after the first few years, obviously not playing many games and having a few really bad injuries, something like this was probably in the back of my mind slipping away.

“Now that we’re here I’m really proud and I know my family is really proud of me as well.”

Rufer broke through into the Phoenix first XI in the 2018/19 season and has remained a regular under Ufuk Talay, who appointed him captain on the eve of this campaign.

“I feel very blessed. I feel really proud that I’m playing 100 games this weekend, but for me I want to play many more.

“It’s a great milestone to tick off but hopefully there’s more to come.”

The 25-year-old has arguably been in career-best form since being benched at halftime of Wellington’s 4-0 defeat to Adelaide United on New Year’s Day.

The Phoenix are unbeaten in the league since, winning four matches and drawing one, with Rufer playing 90 minutes in each.

“He’s stepped up his game,” Talay said. “He’s working hard and I think he’s got a great partnership with Clay (Clayton Lewis) at the moment.

“Both of them have been quite exceptional in the last four/five games that we’ve played.

“They win a lot of balls for us when we don’t have it and they’re a very integral part of our build-up when we do have the ball.

“They’ve been very disciplined in their positioning which has helped us and they’ve been making very good decisions on the ball and you can see that in the outcomes we’re getting.”

Ufuk Talay has named the same starting XI for the past three matches and is unlikely to make changes to for what is the team’s fifth game in 14 days.

“We’ll try to keep that consistency going. We’ll see this morning (Friday) how the boys pull up again. We’ll have some testing in the morning to see if their strengths are back to close to 100%.

“The boys did a nice beach recovery again yesterday so hopefully they’re feeling fresh and we’ll play a good 90 minutes against Sydney FC.

“After that I’ll give the players a couple of days off to recover.”

Experienced English striker Gary Hooper is again likely to have to be content with a place on the substitutes’ bench.

“The front four are doing a good job at the moment,” Talay said.

“Bally’s (David Ball) a workhorse. He hasn’t scored for us [but] for me that doesn’t matter. The opportunities that he creates, the runs that he makes when we have the ball and even defensively what he gives us is so important.

“Jaushy (Jaushua Sotirio) is at the moment on a high. He scored a few goals against Macarthur, he makes some good forward runs and he assisted a goal in mid-week again.

“At the end of the day players understand when the team’s doing well why they’re not starting. We’ve got a lot of games to go and I’m sure Hoops will feature again.”

The Phoenix will be without left back James McGarry, after he had a minor knee operation.

“He had surgery this week on Tuesday, which was a good one. We were thinking it was going to be a long-term one but it’s looking like four weeks [out].”

Other than McGarry’s absence, Talak has a full-strength and in-form squad to pick from as he endeavours to secure his maiden win against Sydney FC.

“This is just another opposition for us. We haven’t beaten Sydney FC since I’ve been here. We’ve come close, but we’ve got good momentum, there’s confidence within the group and hopefully the boys can display that tomorrow.”

The Isuzu UTE A-League match between the Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC is scheduled to kick-off at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney at 5:05pm AEDT (7:05pm NZT), with LIVE coverage on Paramount+ and Sky Sport 7.

Most recent meeting: 19 December 2021 – Sydney FC 2 Wellington Phoenix 1

All-time head-to-head: Phoenix 13W, Sydney 26W & 5D.

Wellington Phoenix squad: 3. Matthew BOZINOVSKI, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. James MCGARRY, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Gael SANDOVAL, 8. Ben OLD, 9. David BALL, 10. Reno PISCOPO, 11. Jaushua SOTIRIO, 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 16. Louis FENTON, 17. Callan ELLIOT, 18. Ben WAINE, 19. Sam SUTTON, 20. Oli SAIL (gk), 21. Joshua LAWS, 23. Clayton LEWIS, 30. Henry GRAY (gk), 31. Kurtis MOGG, 32. George OTT, 33. Finn SURMAN, 34. Jackson MANUEL, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 43. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 88. Gary HOOPER
Unavailable: 5. James MCGARRY (knee injury)