OPINION: The next seven days could determine the Wellington Phoenix's entire season.
It's a scenario that didn't look likely a few weeks ago when there was an air of invincibility to them. As it stands, the Nix's finals ambitions are balanced on a knife-edge after the hammering at the hands of Adelaide United during the week.
It's time to worry a little for Ernie Merrick and fans alike, as the mid-season run of wins appears to have well and truly come to an end.
Although the 5-0 loss to Melbourne Heart in the last home outing was palmed-off as a "blip", it's been proven to be anything but.
In the last six halves of football, the Nix have comfortably been the second-best side on the pitch in five of them. Only the second half performance against the Central Coast Mariners stands out.
It's this level of inconsistency that will be worrying Merrick the most.
At present, they are a team that can move so quickly from dreadful to sublime, and back again.
The nine-day hiatus they're undergoing between games can now go one of two ways - either it turns out to be a godsend, or cruel timing.
With a number of players away on international duty (the majority with the All Whites in Japan) Merrick does not have the luxury of using the time to radically change the tactical approach or players' wavering mindset.
Professional players love to jump straight back on the horse after a significant loss. They want and need the opportunity to rectify the wrongs and set the record straight. Given that is not a possibility from a team perspective, the best Merrick can hope for is that a change is as good as a rest.
He will be banking on those going abroad coming back from international duty rejuvenated and ready to refocus.
For that to occur, some individual soul-searching will need to take place, as only Ben Sigmund can hold his head aloft with a level of effort in recent weeks befitting his usual standard.
Compounding the problem is suspension and injuries. Manny Muscat's sending-off against Adelaide means he will miss the crucial home game against Perth Glory on March 9, and Kenny Cunningham and Reece Caira both look set for long spells on the injury list with fractures.
Although an injury replacement may be an option, it is by no means guaranteed. A certainty is that Merrick can ill-afford another injury setback, as front-line players are now becoming a rarity.
I'm certain he'd love to wrap Carlos Hernandez, Stein Huysegems and Sigmund in cotton wool, but that isn't a possibility.
All is not lost, however. The Nix still have a big role to play in deciding the make-up of the top six. For me, the midseason renaissance wasn't built on the newfound passing game, its foundations were work ethic and attitude. The passing game came off the back of players' willingness to work extremely hard for each other both in and out of possession.
The loss to Adelaide highlighted a disjointed approach. The Nix fullbacks were badly exposed when wingers, particularly the young Tyler Boyd, stayed high and failed to do the hard yards and track back to help with defensive duties.
The "all-out attack" approach can be implemented on occasion and has worked for the Phoenix this season, but there is also a need to recognise when the team are under intense opposition pressure.
It will hopefully be one of those pinnacle-learning opportunities for Boyd and other Nix players who may have forgotten the fundamentals of success - namely, work ethic and teamwork.
Danny Hay is a former All Whites captain.
- Sunday Star Times
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