Round 22

One of the most over-used phrases in sport is a “must-win” game. Some matches are obviously more important than others but often losing a “must-win” game won’t have a catastrophic effect. However, if there’s any game this season that can be described as “must-win” for the Wellington Phoenix, it’s this one.

A month ago, the top six seemed like a formality as the Phoenix embarked on run of six wins in eight games, including a 5-0 hammering of Melbourne Victory. But in the last three games, the Phoenix have suffered two five-goal losses and now sit outside the playoff spots on what is a severely congested A-League table.

Today the visitors are bottom-of-the-table Perth Glory who have problems of their own, picking up just two points from their last seven matches. If the Phoenix are to feature in the top six, this is the type of game they absolutely must get three points from.

This game – and the week that has preceded it – will provide another stern test for Ernie Merrick’s coaching prowess. If you combine injuries and international unavailability, he’d have been hard-pressed to even put together a game of five-a-side at training this week. His ability to quickly re-focus his troops will go a long way towards success or failure in this game.

I believe the Costa Rican connection holds the key to the Phoenix-s playoff chances. While Stein Huysegems- goals have been hugely important, the all-round influence of Carlos Hernandez and the skill and industry of Kenny Cunningham have been absolutely eye-catching in Phoenix victories this season. If – six weeks from now – we-re reflecting on half a dozen more impressive showings from these two, we-ll also be looking forward to finals football.

Quite simply, March will define the Phoenix season. This month they meet Perth, Newcastle, Melbourne Heart and Adelaide. Four weeks from now, we’ll know if they’re playoff contenders or not.

What is certain is that the A-League has again delivered a grandstand finish. With six rounds to go and every one of the ten clubs still harbouring hopes of playoff participation, the season is boiling to a climax. I dare you to predict the top six.