A clash of the heavyweights both with Premiers’ Plate ambitions – Victory’s visit to Wellington is the match of the round. Here’s what you need to know from the journos ahead of Sunday’s huge match at the Cake Tin.
JOHN GRECO: Writer for www.a-league.com.au
Coach Ernie Merrick has weaved his magic with this Phoenix outfit, making them one of the best passing teams and one of the most exciting to watch in the Hyundai A-League.
While Melbourne Victory have been in scintillating goal-scoring form, Wellington’s attacking options are just as impressive.
The returns of Socceroo Nathan Burns and Kiwi international Michael McGlinchey respectively from international duty for this one will be a huge boost and give them even more options in the front third.
Roy Krishna is in career-best form, Joel Griffiths is an experienced campaigner and proven goal-scorer while Roly Bonevacia has arguably been the find of the season.
They are all potent weapons and have formed an impressive partnership, which seems to be complementing each other’s strengths perfectly.
It’s ensuring the Kiwi outfit aren’t just a ‘one-trick pony’ able to hurt you getting in behind down the flanks or playing intricate passes in and around the box.
While Albert Riera will be missing through suspension, Vince Lia and Alex Rodriguez will provide a strong base behind them in midfield, meaning the attackers have somewhat of a free rein to do their thing.
With the likes of Kenny Cunningham, Kwabena Appiah and Jason Hicks available off the bench as well, the Phoenix have the firepower to trouble Victory’s sometimes vulnerable defence.
Phoenix may be breathtaking going forward but can be susceptible to counter-attacks.
While playing some delightful football, Wellington has been punished on transition a few times this campaign – which is the one area Victory are deadly in and will look to exploit.
With their creative players giving license to attack while their fullbacks are also allowed to bomb-on, if they do turn over possession easily it can spell problems.
Victory has quality all over the park but especially in the front third and like to use the width of the pitch and use the pace of their wingers, with their fullbacks making some incisive and hard-to-track overlapping runs as well.
If the likes of Carl Valeri and skipper Mark Milligan (if fit) can win the midfield battle, they can release their wide-men and really get at the Phoenix back four.
Centre-backs Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund have been resolute this season but Victory’s attack, especially the prolific Besart Berisha and the exceptional Fahid Ben Khalfallah, are exceptional on their day.
Add to that the likes of Gui Finkler, Archie Thompson and Kosta Barbarouses and Victory can make the home side pay if they are given a sniff of an opportunity.
WHAT HAS TO GO RIGHT?
With the midfield battle so crucial to decide this one, Wellington will need to find a way to cover the absence of key cog Riera in the centre of the park.
The bandy-legged Spaniard provides a superb base to Phoenix’s play and would have done a good job on Finkler, too. It will be down to the likes of Rodrigues and Lia to fill the breach.
Phoenix will need to cut out any defensive lapses or losses of concentration, especially at set pieces which is where they were found wanting in the loss to Sydney FC last weekend.
Is this a grand final preview almost two months early?
Both these sides have designs on the title and on current form it’s hard to argue they won’t be there at the end.
They have had one win a piece this season and I’m expecting it to be just as close this time around.
The attacking nature of the sides should ensure goals and I’m going for a 2-2 draw to ensure the Premiers’ Plate race will go right down to the wire.
Over to you, Stracho…
IAIN STRACHAN: Editor of goal.com
It’s no secret Victory are the most dangerous attacking team in the A-League. Kevin Muscat’s men have managed 47 goals from 22 matches this season, four more than the next highest scorers Sydney FC.
Besart Berisha is one of the best centre-forwards in the league, while behind him Guilherme Finkler – a two-goal hero in the 2-1 comeback win over the Central Coast Mariners last Friday – is arguably the competition’s premier playmaker, particularly given Marcelo Carrusca and Thomas Broich have struggled for fitness in 2014-15.
There are three top-quality wide players to choose from for the two berths on the flanks. In the absence of Kosta Barbarouses, Archie Thompson and Fahid Ben Khalfallah have both made meaningful contributions of late.
The New Zealand international is fit again for this one but will he earn an immediate return to the starting XI against his former club or will Muscat keep faith with the incumbents?
Whoever does line up in attack for the visitors on Sunday, it will spell trouble for a Nix outfit humbled by the Sky Blues last time out.
Victory have the joint second-best defensive record in the A-League, level on 28 goals conceded with Wellington, two worse than Adelaide United, who have the tightest backline, having shipped just 26 goals this term.
Nevertheless, there remains a perception the Big V are somewhat vulnerable at the back. They’ve made mistakes defending set-pieces at times this season and can occasionally leave gaps behind their attacking fullbacks.
The return to fitness of Matthieu Delpierre has been welcome, but a team with Wellington’s attacking prowess should fancy their chances of exposing the away team at times on Sunday evening.
WHAT HAS TO GO RIGHT?
Victory need to win the midfield battle and secure more possession than Wellington if they are to negate the hosts’ strengths and begin to threaten their backline.
With Albert Riera missing, Carl Valeri and Mark Milligan have a good chance to dominate in the middle.
But should they come to dictate terms at Westpac Stadium, the Big V must be wary of the fast counter-attacks the hosts are capable of launching, with the likes of Michael McGlinchey, Nathan Burns and Roy Krishna having demonstrated their considerable threat on the break throughout 2014-15.
No-one expected the ‘Nix to produce such an underwhelming performance and suffer a comprehensive defeat to Sydney FC last time out.
Victory meanwhile also struggled to match their usual high standards at home to the Mariners.
Both sides will be buoyed by the inclusion of key players who are available again following international duty.
Wellington will be hurting and keen to respond to that painful loss to the Sky Blues, while the Big V know they need to be at their best to get something from the game.
We’re going to tip a scoring draw that will open the door for top spot to change hands yet again with just a few rounds remaining.