Phoenix to star in blockbuster

IT ALMOST couldn’t have been scripted any better – the final round of the Hyundai A-League 2008/09 regular season, two teams fighting it out for one remaining spot in the top four facing off against two teams battling for the minor premiership.

IT ALMOST couldn-t have been scripted any better – the final round of the Hyundai A-League 2008/09 regular season, two teams fighting it out for one remaining spot in the top four facing off against two teams battling for the minor premiership.

For the fifth-placed Wellington Phoenix, the equation is simple – in order to make the playoffs they must beat the Melbourne Victory at the Telstra Dome cauldron on Friday night and hope the Central Coast Mariners lose to Adelaide United on Sunday. The Victory and the Reds, meanwhile, are neck and neck in the race for the Premiers- Plate – and a coveted Asian Champions League spot – along with the Queensland Roar.

A tantalising weekend of football awaits and the Phoenix kicks things off on Friday in the biggest game of the club-s short history. Already the Wellington club has restored the credibility of the game in New Zealand and turned heads across the ditch in Australia.

They can finish no further down the ladder than sixth, handing the wooden spoon to an Australia-based team for the first time in Hyundai A-League history.

But the season isn-t over yet and the Phoenix have only one milestone in mind – to beat the Victory and make the playoffs.

Defender Ben Sigmund, something of an unlikely hero for the Phoenix this season, never thought the season would come down to the final round. The former salesman, who quit his job three years ago to pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer and has realised that dream with the Phoenix this season, said he didn-t know where the Phoenix were going to end up after a slow start to the competition.

“We-ve come back really well and the team has bonded fantastically. It-s great that it-s now come down to 90 minutes, especially in Melbourne, where there-ll be a big crowd at the Telstra Dome. The boys are buzzing for it.”

Sigmund believed that the Phoenix-s lacklustre performances in the first five rounds were the result of “peaking too early”, the team having made the final of the 2008 Pre-Season Cup.

“There were probably a few things, mainly coming in a little too early and having the boys peaking at the wrong time. It took a while to juggle things and get the right side out. There were a lot of new players we had coming in but once we got that sorted out things started to come right and all the guys started performing to the levels they knew they were capable of.

“It-s been really enjoyable to be amongst and I think the enjoyable atmosphere and environment (coach) Ricki Herbert, the coaching staff and the players have created is why we find ourselves here with a shot at the playoffs with one game to go.”

Since joining the Phoenix predominantly as a cover option in the back four, Sigmund has cemented his spot in the heart of the defence with gusty and determined performances at centre back. He has been one of the standout players all season and his partnership with Karl Dodd has set the platform for the Phoenix-s charge for the playoffs.

But, given that the Phoenix must win on Friday night, defender Sigmund is advocating an attacking ethos.

“I-m always looking to pinch a goal – I had a wee left-foot drive against Adelaide at Westpac Stadium last weekend that went close (the game finished 1-1). I think we-ve got to do the same thing we did against Adelaide, keep the left and right fullbacks pushed on and also be careful to defend well. We-ve got to avoid giving up any opportunities to guys to Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp while making sure we get numbers forward to create chances for our strikers.”

The good form of Sigmund and Dodd has created a pleasant selection headache for Herbert, with skipper Andrew Durante back and fully fit after missing last weekend-s draw with Adelaide.

Durante believes Friday night-s match will be huge.

“They-ve got top spot to play for and we want to make the four, so it-s going to be a cracker of a game. The club-s only two years old, we-re very new to this competition, and it-d be incredible for us to make the top four.”

Like Sigmund, Durante said the Phoenix would have to adopt a strongly attacking mentality.

“I think it-ll be fairly cagey at the start. Both teams will probably try to sit back and soak up the pressure; I don-t think either team will over-commit and the start and push too many players forward. But as the game goes on things will open up and there-ll be a lot of scoring chances.

“It-ll be crucial for us to take our chances.”

While Durante is uncertain whether he will start against Melbourne, he said he was ready if Herbert called on him.

“If Ricki decides to play me I-m up for it – I love the big games and the big occasions,” said the 2008 Joe Marston Medal winner, who had the measure of danger man Thompson in the two teams- last meeting, a 2-1 Phoenix win in round 13.

Friday night-s game kicks off at 8pm AEDT (10pm NZDT).

Wellington Phoenix squad: 1. Mark PASTON (gk), 2. Jeremy CHRISTIE, 3. Tony LOCHHEAD, 4. Jon McKAIN, 5. Karl DODD, 7. Leo BERTOS, 9. Shane SMELTZ, 10. Michael FERRANTE, 11. DANIEL, 15. Adam KWASNIK, 18. Ben SIGMUND, 20. Glen MOSS (gk), 22. Andrew DURANTE, 23. Costa BARBAROUSES, 25. Manny MUSCAT.

In: 22. Andrew DURANTE (return from injury)
Out: 6. Tim BROWN (suspended – 1 week)
Unavailable: 6. Tim BROWN (suspended – 1 week), 13. Troy HEARFIELD (suspended – 1 week), 17. Vince LIA (knee – season)