OPINION: Any doubts about the Phoenix's credentials as a team on the march towards A-League finals football were comprehensively crushed with their second half performance away to the Central Coast Mariners.
Off the back of the 5-0 loss to bottom side Melbourne Heart last weekend, it would have been difficult not to let the seeds of doubt start to take root in even the most ardent fan's mind. Despite the great run of form Ernie Merrick's side had seen, the Heart result was a wake-up call.
Merrick palmed it off as a blip, but it looked to be anything but during the first 45 minutes of Friday night's match against the Central Coast. Down 1-0, exactly what Merrick and senior players said in the sheds during the halftime break, may prove to be a defining moment in their season.
Not only was the 4-1 win crucial, it was the manner and style in which the Nix dismantled last season's champions that caught the eye. The Costa Rican connection of Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham is fast becoming a feature of the Nix's ability to hurt opposing teams in the blink of an eye. Between them, the duo brings pace, skill and guile aplenty - the latter two being words rarely ever associated with the Nix of old.
It seems a distant memory given the Nix's recent good run, but it was only a few months ago that the Costa Ricans' time and influence in Wellington appeared numbered. Hernandez was reportedly disgruntled with the club over their inability to ensure his family could join him in the capital. Added to that, he didn't look entirely fit and questions were being raised about his desire to buy into the team's on-field culture and system. The team even played better football when he was missing through injury.
Similarly, Cunningham had his own troubles as he failed to initially set the league alight. He spent a lot of time coming off the bench in cameo appearances as he struggled to adapt to the pace and style of the A-League.
Fast-forward to the present, and it seems inconceivable that the Phoenix could start a match without the two influential Central Americans. Combined with Stein Huysegems and Tyler Boyd, the four-pronged attack is one that almost every A-League coach would look at through green eyes.
In Huysegems there is size, strength and a clever football mind. Boyd brings raw pace and a willingness to ask questions of defenders every time he gets the ball, that only his youthfulness can allow. Cunningham's movement off the ball, quick feet and speed of thought is invaluable. And Hernandez, well for the first time ever, the Phoenix have a true playmaker - a go-to player capable of creating opportunities for others as well as doing the special and sometimes spectacular themselves.
Credit must go to Merrick for gelling everything together when it appeared things could have gone in a less favourable direction. His calm approach after the Heart loss only confirmed what most already know - that he is the right man to lead the professional game within New Zealand into an exciting new era. Rather than panic and unload any negative baggage onto the shoulders of his playing group, he recognised the performance was a one-off and decided to look forward rather than back.
With only seven rounds remaining and the league so tight, there is no time to dwell on past performances. Very little separates position three to seventh on the table, making Thursday night's away fixture in Adelaide crucial.
The Nix can ill-afford to slip up and let Adelaide United steel a march on them for the final's spots. After the recent meeting in Auckland, which the Nix won 2-1, Adelaide will be a touch wary of the Wellington side's arrival. A repeat dose for the Nix would almost certainly put them in the box seat to cement an all-important top six finish.
Danny Hay is a former All Whites captain.
- Sunday Star Times
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