OPINION: Lose today and Ernie Merrick and his Phoenix players can start picking their way through the travel brochures for an early off-season.
Anything less than three points away to Melbourne Heart, who themselves have had a greater mid-season resurgence than even the Phoenix, is going to make finals football an extremely difficult dream to fulfill.
The finals will still be a mathematical possibility with defeat today, but, given the tight nature of the A-League, a potential five-or-six point gap at the end of the round will seem more like a chasm.
While everyone involved in the game, from supporters through to key stakeholders will be desperate to see the Phoenix compete beyond the close of their regular season on April 12. So, should there be any reprisals if they fail to make the cut? Should Ernie Merrick's neck be on the chopping block?
No doubt in more ruthless and cut-throat environments, such as the top European leagues, that would be a distinct possibility. Regardless of what transpires today and over the coming weeks though, Merrick's job is as secure as Steve Hansen's with the all-conquering All Blacks.
It is universally accepted that Merrick's style and philosophy has been a revelation in Wellington. The game had been crying out for someone to adopt a possession-based, attack-minded style at the top local level. Merrick has delivered that, and despite the rollercoaster season the Phoenix have endured, it's been thoroughly enjoyable to watch them play.
It may be premature to look ahead already, but that honeymoon period won't last forever.
There will almost certainly be more accountability laid at Merrick's feet should there be a failure to make a significant imprint on the top half of the A-League ladder next season.
Style will need to be coupled with consistency on the scoreboard. The Phoenix are, after all, a professional football club and a business. Results ultimately count.
Therefore, the personnel that Merrick chooses to re-sign and add to the group is going to be crucial to the club's success - as well as his own.
News midweek that midfielder Vince Lia has re-signed with the club for another two years is a case in point.
Lia has reinvented himself under Merrick, becoming far more than just a ball winner. He's had a solid season, hence the reward of a new contract.
But as much as I like and admire Lia, is he really a player that the club needed to rush to lock down at this stage? It begs the question, how hard or far, have they looked to improve on what they already have?
The squad surely needs to constantly evolve to keep up with other teams in the league. In the end, a search for better quality may have come up empty, and bang for buck, Lia may be the best they can get. But what other options were on the table?
- Sunday Star Times
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