Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC may be the favourites heading into the A-League finals series, but the Wellington Phoenix is the team most coaches fear.
Of the six coaches in the finals, four believe the Wellington Phoenix are the darkhorses to claim Australian football’s biggest prize.
It’s been quite a season for the Phoenix; defying the critics who had New Zealand’s sole representative in the Australian league as one of the favourites for the wooden spoon and certainly one of the four teams destined to miss out on the finals.
There was no way, we said, that the Phoenix could fill the gaping hole left by the departing All Whites striker and the league’s leading scorer Shane Smeltz.
But in came Paul Ifill, arguably the most talented and naturally gifted import in the A-League this season, who has given the Phoenix much-needed spark in the front third of the park.
With a squad containing the core group of All Whites buoyed by World Cup qualification, and depth in key areas with the likes of Eugene Dadi and Adrian Caceres recruited in the past twelve months, the league has every reason to fear Wellington.
They have proven their strength by sweeping the highly-fancied Gold Coast United, which includes Smeltz, this season and their home record – they haven’t been defeated in New Zealand since October 2008 – will hold them in good stead, especially with home ground advantage in the first round of the finals against Perth Glory.
They have played themselves into contention at the right time and are undoubtedly riding the wave of confidence that’s swept through New Zealand football since World Cup qualification.
Crowd figures are on the rise with an incredible 20,000 predicted for Sunday’s clash.
Following the 19,258 crowd that watched the Phoenix on their visit to Christchurch’s AMI Stadium earlier this year, some are even suggesting New Zealand should be granted a second A-League franchise.
Despite the protestations of the Asian confederation regarding the Phoenix’s place in one of their leagues, the success of the All Whites, Auckland in the World Club Cup and the Wellington Phoenix has been a huge fillip for New Zealand, Oceania and football as a whole in the Asia-Pacific region.
Having a strong and competitive team based in New Zealand is a huge bonus for the A-League, with Wellington’s crowd averages embarrassing some of their Australian counterparts’.
Now, the first team based in New Zealand to make the finals series is making a serious run against their Australian rivals to go all the way.
Good luck to them.
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