Ernie Merrick is sticking by his newfound belief that the Wellington Phoenix will miss out on the A-League finals, although the coach vows his team will ''give it everything'' nonetheless.
Eyebrows were raised when Merrick took the unusual step of declaring his side's playoff chances over following last Saturday's 5-0 loss to the Newcastle Jets, despite them remaining a realistic mathematical possibility.
With three rounds to go the Phoenix are four points off the playoff pace and host Adelaide United at Westpac Stadium tomorrow.
''We'll give it everything to try and make the finals,'' Merrick said.
''I was just looking at it realistically. There's still hope and I'm not giving it away. I was just asked and I answered honestly what I think. I don't think we've got the squad to win three really tough games in a row, against teams that are competing with us to play in the finals.''
Merrick is a canny customer and may have thrown in the towel publicly to take the pressure off his side.
But it is hardly the way to attract fans to the stadium for the second to last home game of the season.
With six players suffering season-ending injuries, Merrick described it as ''one of the toughest years'' in his 30 seasons of coaching.
But he admitted that bad luck was no excuse for conceding five goals in three games this season.
''It will never happen again.''
It has been a rollercoaster first season in Wellington for Merrick and he is already casting one eye towards 2014-15.
He wants to bring in another experienced player for next season and will make decisions on out-of-contract veterans Paul Ifill and Leo Bertos once the games are over.
''But to me we've taken a huge step forward in building an exciting squad.''
Merrick was not overly confident of retaining off-contract striker and leading goalscorer Stein Huysegems, ''but we'll certainly try hard''.
Playmaker Carlos Hernandez has recovered from his right calf injury and trained yesterday but his match fitness remains questionable.
Merrick said the Costa Rican would be assessed today ''but as long as he's got no aches on the calf muscle after this session, he'll be back in the squad''.
Adelaide have their own health issues, with Jon McKain (thigh) and Sergio Cirio (hamstring) ruled out and Jeronimo Neumann (hamstring) in doubt.
Whatever the outcomes over the next three weeks, Merrick remained adamant his Phoenix rebuild was on track.
''I think we've got a very strong squad and our starting XI, given everyone is available, is very strong, very good and we've demolished teams. And if you look at the number of times I've been able to put out our strongest squad, it's not very often. And that's been the problem.
''But the signs are all good. It's been one of those years. I've never come across a year like this and the injuries - these boys know how to do it properly. They haven't been little strains, it's broken this, dislocation that, it's been unbelievable.''
AT A GLANCE
What: A-League, round 25
Where: Westpac Stadium
When: 3pm tomorrow
TV: Live on Sky Sport 4
Referee: Peter Green
TAB: Phoenix $2.90, Adelaide $2.30, draw $3.30
Phoenix (from): Glen Moss, Shaun Timmins, Andrew Durante, Ben Sigmund, Michael Boxall, Manny Muscat, Kenny Cunningham, Vince Lia, Carlos Hernandez, Tyler Boyd, Stein Huysegems, Lewis Italiano, Matthew Ridenton, Jason Hicks, Roy Krishna, Jeremy Brockie, Alex Rufer, Hamish Watson
Adelaide (from): Eugene Galekovic, Michael Marrone, Nigel Boogaard, Osama Malik, Jeronimo Neumann, Isaias, Marcelo Carrusca, Bruce Djite, Cameron Watson, Awer Mabil, Michael Zullo, Paul Izzo, Tarek Elrich, Fabio Ferreira, Jordan Elsey, Ryan Kitto, Nathan Konstandopoulos
- The Dominion Post
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