OPINION: Wellington Phoenix has had to be tough over the past two years.
But the A-League Men’s new season could be the toughest in coach Ufuk Talay’s tenure as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a major impact on the only New Zealand club in the 12-a-side competition. teams.
Not only do the Phoenixes face another season based away from Wellington, setting up camp in Sydney and playing home games outside of Wollongong, but the current border restrictions in place to stop the spread of the virus have severely hampered the ability of the club to recruit players from abroad.
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This has left the Nix at a great disadvantage as the new season approaches following the loss of some key staff members, and they will exceed expectations if they can fight for the top six, even if they fail to. new.
Alex Rufer is named the first home captain of the Wellington Phoenix men’s team.
Captain Ulises Davila, Steven Taylor, Cameron Devlin and top scorer Tomer Hemed are all gone – their four most influential players of last season – but Hemed is the only one of the quartet they were able to replace with a player of similar quality. . by luring forward Gary Hooper back from India.
The Phoenixes haven’t been able to bring foreign players to the country for most of the preseason, meaning they couldn’t sign anyone to replace their main starts except for Hooper. which was secure from the start.
They will likely have to wait until the next transfer window opens on January 14 to try again.
It might be too late as they will already be a third of the way to the campaign trail by this point.
The Phoenixes start the 2021-22 season away from Davila’s new club Macarthur on Sunday (8:45 p.m. NZT) and getting off to a good start against the club that finished just above them is vital given what happened last season.
The Phoenix had five points in their first eight games and it proved to be costly as they finished with a short point in the top six.
They ended the season on a record 11-game unbeaten streak, but left their streak too late and had to regret some of their early mistakes, including the 2-1 loss to the penultimate Newcastle Jets.
Davila’s departure is a big blow as the Mexican was not only the Phoenix’s best player and main creator, but one of the league’s best players and his time in the A-League Men strengthens a rival club .
But Taylor’s shock retirement early in their preseason is arguably a bigger loss given the impact he had on the club upon his return, and the experience, leadership and leadership. stability it brought to the defense.
The late run that gave the Phoenix a chance to reach the top six coincided with Taylor’s return.
Reno Piscopo looks set to fill the creative void left by Davila’s departure in his third season with the Phoenix, but until they can sign a new imported center-back, Talay will have to rely on Tim Payne, Joshua Laws and rookies Matthew Bozinovski and Kurtis Mogg, which could leave them exposed at the back.
Hooper is the only major signing Phoenix has been able to make, but the former Celtic forward is a proven finisher across the board and could kick the club into the finals race if he can shoot in front of goal.
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He will partner with Ben Waine, who will look to build on his breakout season and score more goals.
The rest of the new signings are younger players from New Zealand and Australia who will mainly provide depth for the squad, but right-back Callan Elliot is the one expected to start while attacking midfielder Ben Old is one to watch.
Until border restrictions ease, the Phoenixes will play their home games outside WIN Stadium in Wollongong, but their scheduled nine-game return to New Zealand from January 29 would be a game-changer.
Their 3-0 win over Western United in their only game at Sky Stadium was one of their most complete performances and the city would back them after being deprived of professional football.
If the Phoenixes were to get any positive early results, starting with Macarthur on Sunday night, a homecoming could give them the momentum they need to start and fight for the top six.
Talay had to overcome many obstacles in his first two seasons at the helm thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, but still managed to consistently exceed expectations with limited resources at his disposal.
His return to a two-year contract should at least give Phoenix fans some optimism that he can continue to challenge those challenges and mount another playoff push, even his team are weaker than they are. was.
But it seems their hopes are based on signing at least two imports in January to improve the squad and getting back to Wellington as soon as possible, and it could just be trying to limit the damage until then. .
Wellington Phoenix 2021-22 A-League Men
Coach: Ufuk Talay
Captain: Alex Rufer
In: Alex Paulsen, Ben Old, Callan Elliot, Gary Hooper, George Ott, Luka Prso, Matthew Bozinovski, Nicholas Pennington, Kurtis Mogg.
Outside: Cameron Devlin, Charles Lokoli-Ngoy, Liam McGing, Luke Devere, Matthew Ridenton, Mirza Muratovic, Stefan Marinovic, Steven Taylor, Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi, Tomer Hemed, Ulises Davila.
Key player: Reno Piscopo. The Olyroos star will launch the attack on Phoenix following the departure of Ulises Davila. A talented dribbler who is deadly on set piece, the 23-year-old attacking midfielder has the potential to set the A-League Men on fire as long as he can remain injury-free.
Rising star: Ben Old. The latest talent to emerge from the Phoenix academy. The 19-year-old stood out for the reserve last season and made his men’s A-League debut in front of a crowd of 24,000 in the Phoenix’s lone game in Wellington. Was also a member of the New Zealand squad which competed in the Tokyo Olympics and played an important role as an attacking midfielder on the right side throughout the preseason.
Planned finish: 10th based on the players Phoenix currently owns, but the outlook could improve significantly if they strengthen the squad with at least two new players imported in January. Still enough quality in the squad to be competitive, but the defense could be on display without an uncompromising defender like Steven Taylor.