It all comes down to this. The Hyundai A-League Finals Series has come a week early for Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC in a Sunday showdown at packed Westpac Stadium.
With the Premiers’ Plate, logically, heading to Melbourne Victory, this Round 27 clash is a straight-up shoot-out for a crucial top-two spot.
The Sky Blues are in the box seat and have an amazing record on the road – including a 3-0 win last time they were in Wellington – but you can never rule out a side coached by Ernie Merrick.
We look ahead to three crucial match-ups in what promises to be a drama-filled clash at Wellington’s Cake Tin.
Phoenix midfielder Albert Riera v Sydney skipper Alex Brosque
It should come as no surprise that Brosque is finding form at this time of the season.
The ex-Socceroos attacker is a big-game player. Brosque thrives on that pressure. The Sky Blues skipper has been a model of consistency all season but has stepped it up in recent weeks.
He followed up his brace against Perth Glory a fortnight ago with another two goals in the win over Newcastle Jets last Friday.
‘Brosquey’ is white-hot right now. His movement and speed is hard to track but if anyone can do that it’s Phoenix’s Spanish maestro.
Riera’s importance to Wellington’s success can’t be understated.
The beauty of Riera’s game is he keeps it simple.
He doesn’t try to overplay his hand. Just get the ball and give it to the more creative players in front of him. Simple, but effective. A link-man and a tempo setter.
It means while Brosque’s attacking game is thriving, he will have a defensive duty to do on Sunday as well.
When the Sky Blues don’t have the ball, expect Brosque to get close to Riera to try and stop him picking up possession to jump-start Phoenix attacks.
Phoenix attack Nathan Burns v Sydney defender Nikola Petkovic
This confrontation has the potential to be an absolute ripper.
Burns has been in career-best form, seemingly rejuvenated under the wily Merrick’s guidance.
At times this season he has been absolutely unplayable. The stats say it all:
-83 successful dribbles
-51 fouls won
The 26-year-old has great close control and a blistering turn of speed and not many defenders have had success halting his impact.
That task this week falls on the shoulders of Petkovic. Shifted to left-back in recent weeks, the Serbian has done extremely well.
He has enjoyed the greater freedom to get forward down the flank but has also shown great defensive strength in that full-back position.
Petkovic is another character that thrives on big-game pressure and will relish the chance to not only trying to stop one of the Hyundai A-League’s big guns but also have an impact at the other end of the pitch too.
Phoenix defender Michael Boxall v Sydney winger Bernie Ibini
Sky Blues coach Graham Arnold says Ibini has taken his game to a new level over the last few months. And it’s hard to argue anything against it.
Not only is he a selfless team player who gets though a mountain of work at both ends of the pitch, he has the tools to be a match-winner.
The Nigerian-born attacker has found goal-scoring form in recent weeks, with five for the season.
Most of those have been spectacular as well, like his stunning individual goal against the Wanderers and his powerful volley against Perth a fortnight ago.
On his day there is arguably no more devastating player in the Hyundai A-League.
Arnold has started Ibini down the left flank in recent games which, this weekend, would put him up against the imposing Boxall.
The Kiwi international defender has grown into the season for Phoenix, starting just seven games but making a significant impact on the run-in to the Finals Series.
The 26-year-old has a great engine and provides real energy down the right and is skillful, agile and has good pace for a big, rugged defender.
There’s no doubt he has the ability to get in Ibini’s face and make it a torrid afternoon for the Sky Blues winger.
But the test for Boxall will be keeping his opposite number quiet for the entire 90 minutes.
2015/16 Wellington Phoenix Membership is now on sale. ‘Bring Your Game’ and join today to show your support for the boys as they prepare for Finals Football. Members get exclusive access to finals tickets before the general public, so become a Member now by clicking here.