Somehow, today's A-League game in Wellington has become the match of the round.
You would have been placed in a straitjacket for suggesting that the last time the teams met in December, when the Phoenix scraped a 1-0 win over Melbourne Heart in Victoria in a meeting between the two bottom-ranked clubs.
Since then the Phoenix have surged strongly up the ladder and, with 19 points from their past eight games, are the league's form team.
The Heart remain in last place and have endured a tumultuous season.
But, following the axing of coach John Aloisi - the day after that Phoenix loss - the club's entire outlook has become decidedly sunnier.
Most significantly, English Premier League giants Manchester City bought the Heart for about A$11.5 million last month, creating all sorts of wonderful opportunities depending on how seriously City treat the venture.
But on the field their fortunes are also on the rise.
Coach John van't Schip, who guided the Heart to their first finals appearance in 2011-12, returned to steady the ship and has scooped 10 points from their past four games.
Not that Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick was viewing the Heart as a "banana skin" opponent.
"It's never been in my thinking, this idea of banana skin and failure against a team you should beat. I just think every game is a very tough game. Obviously Adelaide were on a really good run and we did well [in a 2-1 win], Newcastle, they had nothing to lose so they really came at us [in a 3-2 win]. In those two games you could say ‘oh no, you could be in a bit of trouble here.' And then the same could be said about Heart. They're on a bit of a roll, [former Dutch international midfielder Orlando] Engelaar's back in the squad, they've got some players that can score goals, they're getting forward more. I tend to not worry about what they're going to do, I just know it's going to be a tough game."
Right back Michael Boxall and left midfielder Kenny Cunningham return from suspension to add experience and class.
Key Phoenix midfielder Albert Riera remains sidelined with a groin injury, while in-form Heart playmaker Harry Kewell is out with a foot complaint.
The Phoenix will back themselves to enjoy a healthy percentage of possession and play the "front half football" that Merrick craves.
Playmaker Carlos Hernandez and striker Stein Huysegems are in rare form and give the Phoenix the one-two attacking punch that finals teams need.
Heading into round 19, Hernandez led the league with 13 "scorer points" - five goals and eight assists. And Huysegems (nine goals) was the equal leading scorer with James Troisi of the Melbourne Victory.
"We know Wellington is a team in good form, they are playing good football," van't Schip said.
"They have an experienced coach and they have some good players, with Hernandez, of course, as the one who is giving the team something extra. So we have to prepare ourselves well for that. [Huysegems] is a dangerous player, left-footer, quick and he's in the right spot. The relationship on the pitch with Carlos is good. They're dangerous."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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