Ricki Herbert has made his biggest call of the A-League season by benching former Belgium striker Stein Huysegems for today's game in Wellington.
The under-pressure Phoenix coach has instead placed his faith in unproven teenager Tyler Boyd, who will make his first start against leaders Central Coast.
It is a curious decision; Huysegems has genuine pedigree and Boyd, while promising, is yet to score a goal despite featuring in every game this season.
Herbert, who was an active participant in yesterday's training drills, said Boyd would be allowed to "cut loose" in a front three including fellow New Zealanders Jeremy Brockie and Louis Fenton.
Easier said than done against the Mariners, who have been dominant at what was once a Phoenix fortress at Westpac Stadium.
Herbert is in an awkward position, desperately needing points to reclaim a berth in the top-six, yet being asked to deliver "total football" by the club's owners.
That prospect is far-fetched and the first outing since Gareth Morgan went public resulted in better attack but dreadful defence in a 3-1 loss in Adelaide.
And why has Huysegems, the major off-season buy, been dropped?
Herbert didn't shed any light on the matter, saying: "Stein's been great, his contribution has been good."
Presumably not good enough compared to Boyd, who had "done a great job off the bench and it's just a chance for him to see what he can do from the start."
With an ageing core, the Phoenix openly viewed this season as their best chance to make a run at the title after three years of qualifying for the finals.
Yet Herbert, in his sixth season at the helm, appears caught between building for the future with a more attractive style, and winning now.
"Gee I think it's pretty clear for everybody to see where we're heading and that's going to take a bit of time," Herbert said.
"Some parts we'll get right, some parts we won't at the moment but I think it's visible, it's tangible and it's pretty exciting really, if I'm honest. So we'll let those young ones cut loose. They're not the most attacking side in the league either, but they're top of the league, they're hard to break down. I think it's a chance for these young guys to shine really."
Dani Sanchez, who scored against Adelaide in his comeback from surgery, left training with a toe injury yesterday but Herbert thought the Spanish midfielder should be able to take his place in the starting lineup.
If not, Alex Smith would be the natural replacement.
There has been no shortage of story angles recently and Herbert was quizzed about both Morgan and the racial abuse suffered by Paul Ifill in Adelaide.
He praised the Phoenix board as "incredibly good" and "whatever comments come out are all in the best interests of the club. Hopefully that's kind of been put to bed now. Everyone's had a little bit of a go at it but that's not surprising. I'm here for the long haul and looking forward to it."
And on the Ifill situation: "I think generally, as a comment, in our code it's not condoned. This club doesn't feel any different but Adelaide have dealt with it in a very professional way and we thank them for that. That door's closed."
The Mariners come to town settled and with the second-best record in the history of the league after 11 games (26 points and eight wins).
HOW THEY LINE UP
What: A-League, week 12
Where: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
When: 5pm today
Referee: Peter O'Leary
TAB: Phoenix $3.50, Central Coast $2, Draw $3.40
Phoenix (likely): Mark Paston, Leo Bertos, Ben Sigmund, Andrew Durante, Tony Lochhead, Manny Muscat, Vince Lia, Dani Sanchez, Louis Fenton, Tyler Boyd, Jeremy Brockie. Bench: Griffin McMaster, Alex Smith, Benjamin Totori, Stein Huysegems
Central Coast (possible): Mat Ryan, Pedj Bojic, Trent Sainsbury, Patrick Zwaanswijk, Josh Rose, Nick Montgomery, John Hutchinson, Michael McGlinchey, Tom Rogic, Bernie Ibini, Daniel McBreen. Bench (from): Justin Pasfield, Zach Anderson, Adriano Pellegrino, Mitchell Duke, Mile Sterjovski
- © Fairfax NZ News
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