Wellington Phoenix had a mixed season in 2020/21. They began positively, but ran out of steam towards the end of the season. A near-endless road trip took its toll on the New Zealand-based side.
After a deluge of high-profile departures and the retirement of their captain, the Phoenix are reloading and preparing for what will be another challenging season in the A-League Men.
Last season’s finish: 7th
The Phoenix have a larger challenge than most sides this season. The travel restrictions between New Zealand and Australia have made recruitment very difficult.
Despite this, they have announced the addition of Luka Prso. The Olyroo has joined after being released by NK Osijek in Croatia.
His international and A-League experience with Newcastle will make him a valuable addition to the midfield.
Former Melbourne Victory defender Matthew Bozinovski will add depth to the defence. The tall centre back is on loan to the Phoenix after developing in the Victory reserves and North Macedonia’s U21 side.
He has big boots to fill after Steven Taylor’s retirement, but he will be given playing time. The fact that Victory were unwilling to let him leave permanently is a testament to his ability and reputation.Embed from Getty Images
Where to start? Seven players departed at the conclusion of the 2020/21 season.
Cameron Devlin has moved on to new challenges in Scotland and other players have looked elsewhere for opportunities, but the biggest shock was Steven Taylor.
Three days after being named captain for the upcoming season, Taylor retired from the game completely.
The prospect of being on the road for another season due to COVID restrictions was something that Taylor was not prepared to endure.
From a purely playing perspective however, the biggest loss is Ulises Davila.
Inventive attackers who can link play, provide final passes and score goals are a rarity. He was a popular player at Wellington and had substance to match his style.
Across two years at the club, he scored 19 times and added 12 assists over 50 games. These numbers are not easily replicated.
What to expect:
Pain. Few playing groups sacrificed as much as Wellington’s in the A-League Men competition last season. They were unable to play home matches for the majority of a turbulent year.
Despite these significant hurdles, Wellington performed extremely well. They narrowly missed the finals and finished the season with a run of 11 games undefeated.
However, the fact that they have been unable to replace their departed players and may not be able to until January may be impossible to overcome.
Reno Piscopo is currently training in Australia by himself and is unable to link up with the team. He remains a key player for Wellington.
The playmaker averaged two key passes and four shots on goal per 90 minutes last season. Olyroos fans can attest to his dead-ball ability, and the new number 10 will be essential to any success for the club.
The rest of the Phoenix players are currently arriving in Melbourne as of early November, but at the moment there are no easy weeks ahead for the club.
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Even considering all of these hurdles, it is hard to completely write off Wellington. Against all the odds last season they were competitive, dangerous, and entertaining.
In the history of the A-League Men, no other team has had a goal difference average as strong as theirs and missed the finals.
Wellington ended the season with a plus-10 goal difference with 0.38 per game. Considering that they barely had a home fixture their form was incredibly impressive. Manager Ufuk Talay got the best out of his team and together they made the most of a tough situation.
They are almost starting from scratch again this season, but they have a manager who has navigated these issues before. He will know how to prepare and motivate his team.
In the end, it will all depend on how well they can manage the losses of their two former captains and Israeli marquee striker Tomer Hemed.
Sadly it might be too much for even Talay to overcome. This may be a year that they just have to endure but be assured they will give it everything they have got.
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