Wellington Phoenix v Sydney FC Preview

Sydney FC don’t need to beat Phoenix away in Wellington this weekend to win the title.

But it would certainly help.

A good start to the season has been undone by an awful November and while the early send-off of Alex Gersbach gives some context to Sydney’s loss to Adelaide last Friday night, the inescapable fact is that Sydney have won just one game since the end of October.

The Sky Blues have turned wins into draws and draws into losses, resulting in a slide from top to 5th on the ladder, with the Phoenix just two points adrift. For a club that harbours premiership aspirations, this isn’t good enough and while the title is still well and truly winnable, Sydney FC need to put together a good run of results, starting this Saturday afternoon at the Cake Tin.

Only goal difference separates Sydney from Melbourne Victory following the arch-rivals’ 1-0 loss to Glory on Wednesday night. If all weekend results go Sydney’s way, the Sky Blues can end the round as high as equal second on the table. If they do not, Sydney FC will find themselves dropping to 6th.

Picking up points in Wellington is never easy but statistically draws are the hardest to come by – someone usually walks away with 3 points. Phoenix hold the wood at home over the Sky Blues but that is largely due to a bad Sydney run between 2010 and 2013 and since then, the Sydney club did the away double over their trans-Tasman rivals last season after re-establishing a good record over the Kiwis under Frank Farina.

Sky Blue fans were left angry and frustrated at Wellington’s tactics last time the sides met as Phoenix embarked on an exercise of shameless timewasting to eke out a barely deserved point, led by the night’s villain-in-chief Manny Muscat. Of course, had Alex Brosque buried his two gilt-edged chances, none of it would have mattered a jot.

Phoenix play a more attacking brand of football at home than away and will look to capitalise on the form of the outstanding Roly Bonevacia, whose combination with Roy Krishna has been among their best avenues to goal. Blake Powell, meanwhile, will be looking to once again make a point to the club that had failed to renew his contract in 2014. As usual, Wellington are built on solid foundations, with Muscat and Andrew Durante leading a hardnosed, experienced backline that makes up in graft, fearlessness and tough tackling what it lacks in pace and finesse.

It will be fascinating to see how Arnie approaches the contest. Sydney have played their last two outings with far greater attacking intent than in previous weeks – including last week until they went down a player – so the Sky Blues may adopt similar tactics against a Phoenix side that likes to play possession football but does most of it in the middle of the park.

Unsurprisingly, skipper Alex Brosque is still out with a hamstring injury while in good news, Andrew Hoole makes a return and is expected to start. He is joined, for first time in weeks, by Robert Stambolziev, as Arnie looks to inject extra pace into the squad.

Chris Naumoff could earn another start after his excellent first half cameo last week. Jacques Faty, meanwhile, should gain a reprieve in a backline reshuffle, with Rhyan Grant, outstanding the last few weeks, moving to leftback.

Shane Smeltz got on the scoresheet in Sydney’s two wins in Wellington last season but, despite his outstanding workrate this season (or perhaps because of it?) has largely misfired in front of goal. Does Arnie drop him and move Filip Holosko centrally once again?

Whoever takes the field, the Sky Blues are up for the challenge and last week’s outstanding, backs-to-the-wall effort to almost snatch a point against a full strength Adelaide United shows that this is a team and a squad that believes in itself, its coach and its chances of success. Their work on the training paddock has been exemplary and a few goals is all it will take to catapult Sydney FC back in title contention.

That’s how little there is between the top sides this season.

The time to make a move is now.