The Wellington Phoenix haven’t lost an A-League Men match since April 21, when they went down 3-2 to champions Melbourne City. It’s the current longest unbeaten streak in the competition.
With seven wins and six draws to their name since then, the ‘Nix’ have been quietly flying under the radar to start the 2021/22 season.
A blocked penalty against the Central Coast Mariners made what could have been a 3-1 win seem just a touch less impressive. But make no mistake, Ufuk Talay’s men aren’t at all daunted by another extended roadtrip.
Wellington will once again be the Wollongong Phoenix until at least the end of January. They’ll be based out of New South Wales for the time being while the Trans-Tasman travel bubble remains shut.
Friday’s match against the Western Sydney Wanderers at WIN Stadium could be a real threat to finally breaking the streak after 13 games.
Talay will be nervously sweating on the fitness of striker Jaushua Sotirio and fullback Callan Elliot after both were substituted out in the 76th minute on Saturday.
Sotirio was particularly important to the win, scoring the go ahead goal in the 63rd minute. He shot past keeper Mark Birighitti inside the area, turning the tide for his side.Embed from Getty Images
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He took another two shots in the first half, one sailing over the crossbar and one stopped by Birighitti. The 26-year-old was a constant attacking threat.
Typically used as an impact sub, as he was in the draw with Macarthur FC the week prior, Sotirio looked set to play his first 90 minute game since an April win over Western United, the start of the unbeaten streak.
He had replaced Ben Waine as the second striker, as Talay opted instead for a more successful 4-4-2 in favour of last week’s 4-3-3.
That was until Sotirio collided with the Mariners’ Oliver Bozanic in the 72nd minute, wearing his boot straight into his ankle in an attempt to to defend his run towards goal.
Just minutes later Elliot began to grab at his right shoulder, signalling to the bench that he was done for the day.
The 22-year-old had a strong day out at right back in just his 11th appearance for the Phoenix. Though he didn’t create quite as much attacking play as his counterpart on the left in James McGarry, half of his passes were completed in the Mariners’ half and we won seven of his duels.
With the two potentially out for Friday, Talay might have some thinking to do on his starting XI. The coach opted to bring on Ben Old (attacking midfielder) and Louis Fenton (right back) to replace the injured players.
Talay spoke post-game on his injured players, and the next step for the match against the Wanderers.
“Jaushy’s ankle has swollen up, so we’ll see how he goes,” he said.
“Cal Elliot’s shoulder isn’t good at the moment. We’ll take him to the hospital to get a scan and we’ll get a look at what that looks like.”
The replacements a return to the norm
Talay will likely be looking to replace Sotirio up front with the starting two forwards that he used against Macarthur – Gary Hooper and Ben Waine, with Reno Piscopo pushing up as an attacking midfielder.
However, the coach admitted that both Hooper and Piscopo were still being built up to full fitness, and are unlikely to play 90 minutes against the Wanderers.
This means that another forward and attacking midfielder option will either need to be subbed on, or start in their place. Sticking with Waine up forward and OId in the midfield seems most likely.
In 14 minutes on the pitch, Old managed just two successful passes. The Mariners took advantage of the late substitutions, not managing to score but creating five chances after the 80th minute.Embed from Getty Images
The defensive group and keeper Oliver Sail only had to weather a combined 31 shots in their first two games, giving up two goals.
In their draw with Newcastle, the Wanderers peppered the goals with 31 shots of their own, six on target. Their two goals came off a pinpoint strike from Bernie Ibini outside the area and a Tomer Hemed pickpocket.
With the sheer number of balls coming in, McGarry will have to assist his centre backs more often, while Elliot’s replacement in Louis Fenton will have plenty asked of him.
Fenton didn’t start on the weekend for the first time since February, Elliot earning the favour head of him. Fenton has been an important part of the undefeated streak, and the experience of the 28-year-old should steady a defence that will be tested on Friday.
Should they handle the storm that the Wanderers will likely bring, the Phoenix could continue their streak even if it means just taking one point.
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