Three straight wins and the buzz is back at a resurgent Wellington Phoenix, although coach Ernie Merrick says he never doubted his team's performances would start to translate into results.
The 3-1 road upset of Western Sydney on New Year's Day ranks as one of the best wins in the club's seven-year history.
Finally some polish in front of goal was applied to another purposeful team performance, with Tyler Boyd breaking through for his first A-League goal and Stein Huysegems summing up the turnaround with a cheeky back-heel, his second goal of the match and fourth in three games.
"It's amazing what a bit of confidence does," the Belgian smiled this week.
But the horror 10-game winless streak to start the season means the ninth-placed Phoenix can't afford to take their foot off the pedal if they are to achieve their own goal of qualifying for the top-six finals.
Games against the classy Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar follow, so the Phoenix need to bank another three points against the suddenly vulnerable defending champs, Central Coast, at Westpac Stadium tomorrow.
Merrick said he was never concerned during the winless streak.
"I knew we'd win the last three games," he quipped.
"I don't feel there's been any sudden change, I feel as though it's been a work in progress and what we started on the 10th of June, pre-season, we've been getting better at. It's about taking more risks at the back by playing a higher line, having a very, very hard working midfield who provide service to the strikers who continually get into goalscoring positions... The nature of coaching is you've got to be more logical than emotional."
Illustrating the Phoenix's progress is their completion of 935 passes in the final third of the pitch this season, ranking behind only the leaders Roar.
"We're controlling the play in the front third more often than the opposition. And that always leads to goalscoring opportunities," Merrick said.
"So when you see the stats, when you analyse, you know you're on the right track. It's about being persistent and not emotionally having a knee-jerk reaction and changing everything."
The Phoenix are bracing for a direct opposition tomorrow, as the Mariners adjust to life without midfielders Michael McGlinchey and Marcos Flores.
While the Mariners still reside seven points ahead of the Phoenix, there is an inescapable feeling these are two teams heading in opposite directions.
Without the touch and craft of McGlinchey and Flores, Merrick expects the visitors to take a more direct approach in possession.
They struggled in their first match without the star duo; a scoreless stalemate last Sunday against last-placed Melbourne Heart.
"They now have Bernie Ibini in the squad, they've still got [John] Hutchinson and [Nick] Montgomery running the midfield, they've got young [Mitchell] Duke up front who's a good striker. I think they will be direct."
The Phoenix are expected to make two changes from the Wanderers win, with Michael Boxall coming in for Louis Fenton (shoulder) at right back, and a fit-again Carlos Hernandez replacing Jason Hicks in midfield.
"We'd be disappointed if we didn't win four in a row this weekend," said Boxall, usually a centre back, who will make his second start of the season.
"We were unlucky not to beat them at their place a few weeks back but at home, we have to be confident to knock them over. Three wins, a bit of momentum, everyone's eager to get back on the field and keep it rolling."
- The Dominion Post
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