Wellington Phoenix burning questions: How will they go from their base in Wollongong?
OPINION: After a false start, the Wellington Phoenix will get their 2020-21 A-League campaign underway on Saturday night, when they host defending champions Sydney FC at their temporary home in Wollongong.
With New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic making trans-Tasman travel impossible on a week-to-week basis, WIN Stadium will be their home instead of Sky Stadium for the foreseeable future – though they are holding out hope of playing three matches at their real home in April.
Hopes are high for the Phoenix after they finished third on the ladder at the end of the regular season in 2019-20 – their best effort in 13 years in the league – but they will have to show they can cope with the big losses of defenders Liberato Cacace and Steven Taylor, midfielder Matti Steinmann, and forward Gary Hooper.
* Wellington Phoenix midfielder Reno Piscopo ruled out of opening game
* All Whites striker Jeremy Brockie joins Australian club after stint in South Africa
* All Whites midfielder Clayton Lewis ready to rise again with Wellington Phoenix
* False start: Wellington Phoenix A-League opener postponed
Stuff football scribes Phillip Rollo and Andrew Voerman have taken a look at some of the burning questions around the Phoenix as they prepare for a season unlike any other.
Will being based in Australia will help or hurt the Phoenix's chances?
Phillip Rollo: A bit of both really. Although they won’t have a true ‘home advantage,’ which will hurt them over the course of the season, there are some benefits of being based in Australia. They will be better adjusted to the heat and have considerably less travel to contend with.
Andrew Voerman: Help. New Zealand’s only professional football club continues to carry a heavy Australian influence, both in the playing ranks and on the coaching staff, and they will all enjoy being at home, while it won’t make much difference for their three visa players – David Ball, Ulises Dávila, and Tomer Hemed – who have called plenty of cities home during their careers. Then there’s the fact that they won’t have to travel as much, with five of the other teams nearby in New South Wales and the other six much closer than usual.
Which new signing are you most looking forward to seeing in action?
PR: Clayton Lewis has a point to prove after returning from an unsuccessful spell with English club Scunthorpe. If he can recapture the form from 2017 that saw him start for the All Whites in the biggest games of the four-year World Cup cycle, then he could be one of the signings of the season.
AV: Clayton Lewis was once the next big thing in New Zealand men’s football, but he’s been overshadowed by the likes of Joe Bell, Liberato Cacace, Matt Garbett, Elijah Just, Callum McCowatt, Sarpreet Singh, and Marko Stamenic since he started both legs of the All Whites’ World Cup qualifying playoff in 2017. He needs to secure a starting spot, but this should be his chance to shine.
No-one in New Zealand has seen the Phoenix play yet. What are we expecting them to look like on Saturday night?
PR: The Phoenix have traditionally been slow starters, and last season lost their first four games under Ufuk Talay. However, a pre-season in Australia has enabled them to play a host of friendlies against A-League opposition, which should have them primed for Sydney FC, who they played some of their best football against in 2019-20. The postponement of their originally scheduled game against Brisbane Roar could be a blessing in disguise as it gave late arrivals Tomer Hemed and Ulises Dávila more time to prepare. Expect a full-strength Phoenix starting XI to go toe-to-toe with the reigning champions.
AV: The Phoenix were at their best last season when they played as a team and were passing the ball around with confidence, but a factor in their slide when the season restarted after a pause due to Covid-19 was an overly-heavy dose of individualism. They’ve been hunkered down in Australia since the start of November and that should have helped get them back on the same page, but they’re still integrating two key figures in Dávila and Hemed and it could take a while for them to be firing on all cylinders.
Coach Ufuk Talay and 14 players are only contracted until the end of this season. Which two should be the highest priority to re-sign?
PR: The ones other clubs will be interested in. First, Ufuk Talay, who will be a coach in demand after his highly successful 2019-20 season, particularly if he can match the results from last year. Then, new captain Ulises Dávila, who was the star player and top scorer in the previous campaign, and could be the target of overseas clubs in more lucrative leagues when his contract expires. And thirdly, tenacious midfielder Cameron Devlin, who looks every bit a future Socceroo and would start for pretty much every club in the league.
AV: It is extremely concerning that Talay is yet to re-sign. The Phoenix are heading into a season with an incumbent coach in charge for the first time in four years, and they can’t afford to be looking for their fifth new one in six seasons come the end of it. With a potential shift to a winter A-League on the cards, which will mean an eight-month off-season, tying players down will be hard – especially young, ambitious ones. Convincing Dávila to commit to a team and a league where he’s consistently played – and starred – for the first time in years might be their best bet.
Where do the Phoenix finish and who makes the top six?
PR: The Phoenix still have the firepower and depth to mount a serious challenge for the top-six, but it’s hard to ignore the departures of key defenders Steven Taylor and Liberato Cacace, which leave them light at the back. I expect them to concede more than the 33 goals they leaked during the 2019-20 campaign and finish further down the ladder in fifth but still make the playoffs for the third straight year. Melbourne Victory have bolstered their squad with decent imports out of the UK and still have former Johnny Warren medal winner Marco Rojas running the show, so I have them bouncing back from last season’s woes to win the premiers’ plate ahead of last season’s finalists Sydney FC and Melbourne City, with newcomers Macarthur FC getting in ahead of the Phoenix and Western Sydney Wanderers.
AV: My initial read is that last year’s finalists, Sydney FC and Melbourne City, deserve to be considered the frontrunners and the Central Coast Mariners and the Newcastle Jets can be ruled out of finals contention right away. That leaves eight teams fighting for four spots and the Phoenix have as good a chance as any, but they will need to keep their defence tight, despite losing Cacace and Taylor, and score more goals than the 38 they managed in 26 matches last season. Let’s go for them, newcomers Macarthur, Melbourne Victory, and Western Sydney Wanderers to round out the top six.