Captain Andrew Durante expects the Wellington Phoenix's season will be defined by their next three home games, starting tomorrow at Eden Park.
After fundamental change at the club this season with Ernie Merrick replacing Ricki Herbert as manager, Durante has lauded the speed and aptitude of his team to deliver a more enterprising style under Merrick.
Rewarded for sticking to the task after failing to win any of their first 10 games of the season, the Phoenix have suddenly found traction, winning four of their last six games.
Such momentum may have them only second-bottom in the competition, but such is the nature of the A-League, the Phoenix are also only four points adrift of the top six - with tomorrow's opponent Adelaide currently occupying the would-be final post-season playoff place.
In fact, Durante says the Phoenix are playing the best brand of football he has seen in his seven years in Wellington.
"The first 10 games of the season were frustrating, but we've stayed patient and believed in what we are doing and over the last six or seven weeks it's been really good," Durante said.
"The brand of football is the best we've played in my time at the club, no doubt about it. We feel we can match it with any of the top teams. That's a good feeling to have.
"The league is very tight but we want to get into that top six sooner rather than later, and try to keep ourselves in there.
"Whatever the result is on Saturday, it's not do or die yet. But we want to win our home games.
"There's good confidence in the squad but these three home games we've got now are crucial. They will likely define our season."
Despite the 2-1 loss on the road to Brisbane last week, Durante says the quality of the performance against the top-of-the-table side filled the Phoenix with confidence.
"I thought the first half against Brisbane we were really good. We had a game plan to press them and play out, and it worked. We pressed high, created a lot of chances, hit the post early - I thought we were definitely the better team in the first half," Durante said.
"There were some tired legs at the end and it was two great goals that beat us. We were good value for a draw but it wasn't to be, we were disappointed at the end of the game.
"We're playing some really attractive football and have crucial players like Carlos Hernandez in the squad now. Ernie's philosophy has changed the whole mindset of the club which is fantastic. As a player, it's all definitely enjoyable and I'm sure the supporters are enjoying it more as well."
In a repeat of the Phoenix's game at Eden Park last year, Adelaide again are the visitors with Durante tipping them as the A-League's in-form side - along with his own.
With Phoenix management drawing another very public line in the sand about the need for Aucklanders to turn out in force tomorrow if they expect to retain "home games" taken on the road, Durante is optimistic the improved product on the field will be reflected in bums on seats at Eden Park.
"I remember last time we were here there was talk about whether the crowd would come in and about 20,000 turned up - against Adelaide as well," he said.
"We arrived here Wednesday, have had some good training sessions and the weather's been nice too. Hopefully the crowd comes again and we get more than 20,000.
"Adelaide are a good side. They're starting to hit the back of the net and we've definitely got to be on our game. We can get the better of them but it will be a challenge."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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