OPINION: Saturday's 5-0 drubbing in Newcastle was the Wellington Phoenix's worst performance of the season, at the worst possible time.
Flat, defensively lazy and lacking in attacking inspiration, it almost certainly sounded the death knell for their finals hopes.
Four points off the playoff pace, with three rounds to go, the Phoenix are still a mathematical chance although their poor goal differential hurts them.
Calling it a rollercoaster season under new coach Ernie Merrick is an understatement.
Winless in the opening 10 games, the Phoenix then went on a wonderful run in their next 10, picking up 22 points in rounds 11-20. Some of that football was the best in the Phoenix's seven-year history, with the 5-0 dismantling of Melbourne Victory the highlight.
But, for all the goodwill around Merrick's attacking approach, the wheels have fallen off defensively.
They have conceded an A-League worst 42 goals from 24 games and a horror injury toll has caught up with them.
The fighting qualities of suspended defender Ben Sigmund were sorely missed on Saturday, while the Phoenix also had seven players in the casualty ward.
Injured imports Carlos Hernandez, Albert Riera and Paul Ifill are all top quality A-League players while the loss of Louis Fenton, Reece Caira, Josh Brindell-South and Leo Bertos has meant constant chopping and changing at the fullback positions.
But that is no excuse for the lack of commitment shown at Hunter Stadium.
Merrick has all but given up on the playoffs, which is probably realistic, but won't help get fans through the gates for Sunday's home game against Adelaide United.
At the very least the players need to restore pride in the shirt and their own performances.
Merrick looked sick on the sidelines on Saturday but, having inherited the task of rejuvenating a wooden-spoon side, his job is safe.
He will be judged on his 2014-15 results where playoff football is a must.
Youngsters Tyler Boyd, Matt Ridenton and Shaun Timmins - as well as exciting Fijian Roy Krishna - have all been blooded and will be much better for the experience next season.
"I don't think realistically we're going to make the finals, I think we blew our chance tonight," Merrick said after watching his side get carved up by the Jets.
"We'd have to consistently play three good games and win all three of them and I just don't see us doing that with the lineup we've got at the moment.
"We've just struggled week in week out particularly in these last few weeks to turn out a stable starting 11 and I'm continually changing the backline and midfield."
- The Dominion Post
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