ANALYSIS: Wellington Phoenix’s quest for a maiden A-League Men championship will begin at home to Adelaide United on Sunday.
Here are five reasons why they will win the title this season, and five reasons why they won’t.
They are back home. After being forced to base themselves in Australia for the past two years due to Covid-19, normal service has resumed and the Phoenix can look forward as many as 12 regular season games in front of their own fans in New Zealand. Helping them settle back in, the Phoenix have also moved into a state-of-the-art training facility at the New Zealand Campus of Innovation and Sport.
Their coach. In Ufuk Talay the Phoenix have one of the best up-and-coming coaches in Australian football. The former Sydney FC assistant has taken the club to the finals twice in the past three seasons, only narrowly missing out by a solitary point in 2020-21, and his winning percentage of 41.03% is the best in Phoenix history, even with all the challenges he has had to deal with throughout his tenure. He is coming off contract this season though and there is a sense that this could be Talay’s last hurrah with the ‘Nix.
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They have a better squad. The Phoenix lost their top two goalscorers and their main playmaker from last season, but most of their new signings look like upgrades, on paper at least anyway. Steven Ugarkovic should help stabilise the midfield while the return of All White Kosta Barbarouses and the arrivals of Bozhidar Kraev, Yan Sasse and Oskar Zawada provide Talay with an array of new attacking weapons.
Their imports. A hallmark of Talay’s tenure has been his impeccable record when it comes to recruiting foreign talent. He was the one who brought Ulises Davila to the A-League three years ago and Bulgarian international midfielder Kraev has the potential to be the next hidden gem. He’s a great age at 25 and boasts international and Champions League experience. It is also worth noting this is the first time in three seasons the Phoenix have used their full allocation of imports.
They believe they can. Gone are the days when the Phoenix would be satisfied with a top-six finish and a first round finals exit. They achieved that last season while playing just two games in New Zealand. There is now genuine belief amongst the coaching staff and playing squad that the Phoenix can go all the way. It’s easy to forget but they finished third – their best-ever finish – in Talay’s first season in charge in 2019-20, and looked on course to achieve something special before all the Covid-19 related disruption.
Their defence. The Phoenix shipped a whopping 49 goals last season, giving them the worst defensive record in the A-League. Yet only one of the six new signings Talay made for the new season was a defensive player and he (Lucas Mauragis) is likely to play back-up to first-choice left-back Sam Sutton.
The travel. The one downside of returning to Wellington is that every away trip involves international travel. When they were based in Sydney there were five clubs within driving distance. The travel could become a major factor at the back end of the campaign as the Phoenix are scheduled to play eight of their last 12 games on the road.
The injuries. The Phoenix were plagued by injuries to key players last season, with Alex Rufer, Josh Laws, Clayton Lewis, Reno Piscopo and Gary Hooper all missing a substantial amount of games. They head into the new campaign with Rufer and Ball sidelined until at least December while Lewis and Mauragis have also been under an injury cloud. They will need all hands on deck if they are to compete for the title.
Talay’s future could become a distraction. Talay is off-contract at the end of the season and it seems inevitable that he will be linked every job that comes up given how highly rated he is throughout the A-League. Remember how Mark Rudan’s tenure ended? Players will want certainty about next season and it could become an unwanted distraction if Talay’s future at the club is constantly being questioned.
They never have. The Phoenix are the only club in the competition without a major trophy now that Western United and Macarthur won the A-League and Australia Cup respectively. As good as some past Phoenix teams have been, they have never even made a final and history suggests they won’t this season.
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