Despite needing to salvage a late point at home to the lowly Central Coast Mariners, Wellington Phoenix’s Ernie Merrick was quite right in labelling his side’s performance on Saturday as outstanding.
Merrick’s men utterly outplayed their opponents in the 1-1 draw and only failed to seize a third straight win due to the fine margins of their finishing.
Impressing more than the Mariners hasn’t rated as much of an achievement this season but in Wellington’s case, the 90 minutes at Auckland’s Eden Park served to improve our understanding of their quality.
Roly Bonevacia, Nathan Burns and Alex Rodriguez should all have sealed victory before Matt Simon’s fortuitous 40th-minute opener, while Roy Krishna could have had a couple in the 75 minutes prior to his pulling Phoenix level.
“We played some great football,” Merrick said after the match.
“You have got to come away from a game like that and say that’s the type of football we have to play to get into the finals. I’m nothing but positive.”
It’s salient for the former Melbourne Victory boss to be so upbeat. He might have easily bemoaned his side’s inability to finish and truly sullied what should be viewed as a bright afternoon. Instead, he illustrated an understanding that finally Wellington Phoenix are on the march to something bigger than three A-League points.
For the past two seasons the club has not exactly underwhelmed; rather, their pair of bottom-two finishes have been predictable enough. Ricki Herbert had previously achieved to some acclaim with limited resources, recording three consecutive finals appearances from 2009/10 to 2011/12, but failed to convert and moved on after a wooden spoon season in 2013. Merrick’s first term in charge hardly turned heads either as the Kiwi club slumped to ninth.
Still, some perspective of their last season may have been lost.
Seven games without a win to end their campaign destroyed burgeoning hopes of finals football, while an even more off opening virtually made higher honours impossible. Between the mess, though, was a run of just two defeats in 10 games. Things had been building, just as they are again now.
Now, with more time to implement his plans and improved options to execute them, the process is being accelerated. Not just metaphorically, either.
Bonevacia, Burns and Krishna are the attacking enforcers of a new and entertaining approach, made possible by the creative talents of Michael McGlinchey. Further back, Spaniards Albert Riera and Alex Rodriguez offer a midfield base of more guile than stodgy predecessors. The result is a far more fluid Phoenix.
Individuals – and, by association, the A-League, the Socceroos and the All Whites – are equal beneficiaries. Burns’ league-leading eight goals have him on track for Australia’s Asian Cup squad, while Krishna is staking a claim for Pacific footballers by racking up a notable highlight reel. Riera and Rodriguez, meanwhile, are charting new tracks into the A-League.
Twin tests against Sydney sides are next on a busy agenda. Extending their unbeaten streak to five would position Wellington as perhaps the league’s most in-form outfit. It’s a tough ask, though their truest examination will still lie in wait.
Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund are qualified with the kind of experience desired by the best. But, under their command, the yellow-and-black’s back four have conceded the equal most of any top-six side. A regular rotation of fullbacks hasn’t helped, and the faster, trickier forwards of Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory, in particular, will ask key questions of the two ageing central defenders. Whether it’s a tweak in tactics or personnel, January’s break for the Asian Cup presents the chance for Merrick, just like his side, to be proactive.
Stay on the front foot and finals, top four and more are headed across the Tasman.