01/03/2024

Can the Wellington Phoenix go beyond sixth place this season? (Photo: Wellington Phoenix; Design: Will Cuckson)

For the first time in three years, the Wellington Phoenix will get to play a full season of home and away matches, after the COVID pandemic saw New Zealand’s borders firmly shut.

A number of players – both local and international – key to Ufuk Talay’s set-up have departed, but plenty of experience has returned the other way.

Can the ‘Nix’ make an impact on finals in 2023, or will it be just another middling season for the boys in yellow?

Last season:

Sixth (12 wins, three draws, 11 losses)

Wellington struggled to get going in the early part of the 2021/22 season, taking just four points away from its first six encounters. Like many clubs, COVID struck mid-January, and the club wouldn’t play for three weeks.

When the Phoenix returned however, they looked totally rejuvenated. They would go undefeated for seven games straight, including upsetting eventual champions Western United and second-placed Melbourne Victory.

One major criticism that was levelled against the Phoenix was the absence of a true number 10 in Talay’s squad.

But the wingers made up for the lack of a strong offensive playmaker, with Jaushua Sotirio and new loanee Gael Sandoval contributing to big 3-1 and 3-0 wins over Brisbane and Macarthur respectively.

Sandoval’s presence in particular gave the Phoenix a more dynamic option who was dangerous anywhere within striking distance.

From there, it was up and down for the Phoenix. They would back up a big 4-1 win over Western United with a crushing 4-0 loss to the Central Coast Mariners.

Their biggest loss of the season was a complete embarrassment at the hands of Melbourne City, losing 6-0 in a dogged day.

All but limping to finals, they would bow out 1-0 to Western United.

Biggest in:

With a need for attacking midfielders and greater offensive presence, Bulgarian international Bozhidar Kraev has the chance to be a key piece of Talay’s midfield.

The 25-year-old is capable of playing either an attacking midfield role or as a second striker. Given Talay’s penchant for deploying two players up top, he seems perfectly suited for his formation.

With 24 caps and three goals already for his home country, there’s plenty of potential that he can unlock in this side.

Nix fans already got a taste of what he can offer the side, scoring a goal in the Australia Cup match-up with the Devonport City Strikers.

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Talay played Kraev as a winger in a 4-4-2, opting instead to play Ben Waine and fellow new recruit Kosta Barbarouses up top.

With a likely mix of wide and central roles, he adds versatility to the middle four.

Barbarouses’ addition has clearly already benefitted Ben Waine, who scored three goals across two Cup matches, with Barbarouses also getting on the board against Melbourne City.

His experience up top or through the midfield will be much-needed after a number of departures.

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Biggest out:

Wellington lost not only a number of important players this off-season, but also many fan favourites.

It’s difficult to choose which hurts the most. Gary Hooper was much-loved, and delivered 12 goals across 35 appearances. Louis Fenton‘s retirement leaves a hole in a young back four.

But the player that will be missed most is undoubtedly Reno Piscopo.

Piscopo departed for the Newcastle Jets, after 59 appearances and eight goals in yellow, as one of the brightest youngsters to play for the club.

His influence in big games is clear, scoring four goals and adding an assist in a year where scores were hard to come by for the Phoenix.

While talent on the wing has been added, his development under Talay into a player capable of breaking games open from the left side is undeniable.

What to expect:

While the Nix have lost a number of talented players elsewhere, the experience that the additions of Barbarouses and Steven Ugarkovic bring will be invaluable.

Talay’s game-plan is starting to bear fruit, with a strong upset over Melbourne City in the Australia Cup already under his belt this season.

If they are to be a serious contender in finals this season though, their attacking threats need to hit the scoresheet consistently. How Waine, Barbarouses, Kraev and the new players gel will be a considerable part of the season to come.

They only managed a combined 20 shots in their two Cup games between fellow A-Leagues opposition. With 61 per cent possession against Macarthur, there’s still tweaks to be made with how Wellington looks to play through midfield.

Six home games in their first eight matches gives the Phoenix the opportunity to right the wrongs of last season and get the points on the board early.

Starting XI:

The Inner Sanctum’s predicted Wellington Phoenix starting XI for Round 1. (Design: Will Cuckson)

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