Pressure on Phoenix to find winning form

SAM WORTHINGTON
Last updated 05:00 22/03/2014

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In a season that has taken more twists and turns than a corkscrew, Ernie Merrick has one thing clear.

The eighth-placed Wellington Phoenix will need to win three of their remaining four A-League games if they are to achieve their ambition of finals football – starting against the Jets in Newcastle tonight.

"I think it's definitely looking like three out of four," said coach Merrick, who has watched the Phoenix mix some superb football with unexplained capitulations in an action packed, injury plagued season.

"If we could win three out of four I think we'll be sitting pretty. Other than that, it's going to be tough, no doubt about it. Because of the last two games [draws against Perth Glory and Melbourne Heart] it's a tough run in."

Despite entering the round three points off the playoff pace, the Phoenix still control their own destiny.

Their next three games are against the three teams that started the round immediately above them on the league ladder: Newcastle, Adelaide United and Sydney FC.

"So it's in our hands, it's how we play.

"We've got a good squad, they're ready to go, the atmosphere's always been great at training. There's never been a training session where they're not full of life and motivation. That's a great thing for a coach."

Yet again, Merrick has had to tweak his lineup this week.

With Ben Sigmund suspended, right back Michael Boxall will slot into his preferred central defensive position at Hunter Stadium.

The versatile Manny Muscat will revert from defensive midfield to right back, while young midfielder Matthew Ridenton is likely to start.

The Phoenix played some spirited, attacking football in the controversial 2-2 draw with the Heart.

If they can maintain those standards for the rest of the season then they will deserve to qualify for the top-six finals.

They need to park their frustrations from Ben Williams' awful refereeing display and focus on what they did well last Sunday.

Seventh-placed Newcastle will hold no fears for the Phoenix.

The Jets have won just one of their last 10 meetings with Wellington, who have been victorious in their last three visits.

Historically poor travellers, the Phoenix have shed their attacking inhibitions under Merrick.

With 21 away goals they are the most potent road team in the league, while Newcastle's 13 home points this season is a league-low.

Jets coach Clayton Zane has dumped goalkeeper Mark Birighitti after he made two howlers in the 3-1 loss to Central Coast Mariners.

The capable Ben Kennedy will be between the sticks but the Jets are otherwise expected to be unchanged.

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Former England striker Emile Heskey will lead the line and should have an entertaining heavyweight tussle with Boxall.

Australian World Cup hopefuls Adam Taggart and David Carney are the main attacking threats.

"I know they've had a tough run but they're a good team and there's a lot of ability there," Merrick said.

"But if we play our game I think we'll do well."

AT A GLANCE

What: A-League, round 24

Where: Hunter Stadium, Newcastle

When: 7.30 tonight

TV: Live on Sky Sport 4

TAB: Newcastle $2.10, Phoenix $3.30, draw $3.30

Referee: Strebre Delovski

Newcastle (likely): Ben Kennedy, Sam Gallaway, Josh Mitchell, Kew Jaliens, Josh Brillante, Ruben Zadkovich, Zenon Caravella, David Carney, Joel Griffiths, Adam Taggart, Emile Heskey. Substitutes (from): Mark Birighitti, Andrew Hoole, Ben Kantarovski, Craig Goodwin, Mitch Oxborrow, Michael Bridges, Joey Gibbs

Phoenix (likely): Glen Moss, Shaun Timmins, Andrew Durante, Michael Boxall, Manny Muscat, Vince Lia, Kenny Cunningham, Matthew Ridenton, Stein Huysegems, Tyler Boyd, Roy Krishna. Substitutes: Lewis Italiano, Luke Adams, Jason Hicks, Jeremy Brockie, Hamish Watson



- The Dominion Post

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