Faltering Wellington Phoenix stuck in a slump
Just five weeks ago they were being hailed as the best Wellington Phoenix squad ever assembled.
But now they find themselves in an early season pickle, having yesterday slumped to their third straight A-League defeat.
The now ninth-placed Phoenix didn't play terribly in the 1-0 loss to the in-form Central Coast Mariners in front of 6528 at Westpac Stadium.
But, despite plenty of endeavour, nor did they manage to unduly trouble the well-drilled visitors, whose 68th-minute winner came via the suddenly red-hot journeyman Daniel McBreen.
"It's been a disappointing three weeks," coach Ricki Herbert agreed.
"We're certainly not shying away from that but we're there or thereabouts. I think the games have been close, except for last week, 60 minutes was poor from us. But I think we've shown enough to rebound back."
Worryingly, the Phoenix won't get much of a chance to improve their game at training this week.
Herbert plus the club's six All Whites are on an early morning flight bound for Shanghai and a friendly against China on Thursday.
That group will then link with the Phoenix in Newcastle, via Sydney, on Friday to prepare for Sunday's game against Emile Heskey and the high-flying Jets.
The All Whites' World Cup qualifying campaign has already taken a toll on the Phoenix, who fielded a second-string team against the Heart in round two.
Another clash looms in March, as New Zealand's final two Oceania qualifiers coincide with the pointy end of the A-League.
Herbert said that was something the Phoenix had to accept.
"We'll travel, see how the players get through it and we can only assess once they get back, but hopefully they'll all be OK. It's a New Zealand Football decision to have a game, there's no international football until March next year.
So if you think the World Cup's important, then I think you're going to have some activity whether it's in November, February or sometime in the window."
It's only six games into a 27-round season and the Phoenix do have enough talent and experience to pull themselves out of their current hole.
But simply sneaking into the generous top-six playoffs shouldn't be deemed a success this season.
Prior to the opening game, captain Andrew Durante reckoned that the squad had top-two potential, but the Phoenix are now in danger of falling off the pace.
Herbert, who has tried to play a more expansive style this season, admitted reverting to a three-man central midfield was a possibility, particularly away from home. That would be a shame, but also mean a reprieve for Vince Lia.
"The club's good with certain systems and I think we've been very strong over the past few years," Herbert said.
"I guess I wanted to break the mould a little bit and look and that's my responsibility and accountability to do that."
Ben Sigmund put in a strong shift in his return from suspension but otherwise the side was unchanged from the poor 3-2 loss in Melbourne.
The Phoenix were much hungrier across the park and snapped at the opposition's heels but they had no real inspiration in attack.
Stein Huysegems had the Phoenix's best sight on goal in the first half, but fired well over the bar, while Paul Ifill and Louis Fenton had moments but rarely threatened the well organised visitors.
Central Coast have now won their last six games against the Phoenix, including four in Wellington. "We love coming to Wellington," said Mariners coach Graham Arnold, which just about sums up where the underperforming Phoenix are currently at.