Soccer: Highly rated Phoenix all fit and raring to go

Fit-again Mark Paston is expected to be a key player for the Phoenix this season. Photo / Getty Images
Fit-again Mark Paston is expected to be a key player for the Phoenix this season. Photo / Getty Images

The $9 being offered pre-season by the TAB on the Wellington Phoenix as potential champions is a far cry from previous A-League seasons but coach Ricki Herbert is not getting carried away by the much-shorted odds.

They are rated as equal fourth-best before the start of the season, but some distance back from perennial favourites Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory.

Herbert says that assessment is "fair and reasonable" but, like many, is not convinced Sydney and Melbourne are "that far above the rest".

Herbert says the teams, coached by Vitezslav Lavicka (for his second season) and Ernie Merrick respectively, are going to have to be really well organised if they are to live up to their reputations.

Unlike the Phoenix who have had minimal changes in their playing roster and have retained most of their key players, the big two have much-rearranged line-ups.

Sydney have lost influential and long-serving captain Steve Corica (retired) and, to newcomers Melbourne Heart, goalkeeper Clint Bolton (replaced by the impressive Liam Reddy), defender Simon Colosimo and striker John Aloisi. Reddy filled in at the Phoenix while World Cup hero Mark Paston was sidelined with a broken leg.

Fit-again Paston is expected to be a key player for the Phoenix this season.

Melbourne have lost goalkeepers, Glen Moss (to Gold Coast) and Mitch Langerak (to Borussia Dortmond) and Nik Mrdja. Merrick is gambling on experience with seven of his squad 30-plus including captain Kevin Muscat. He will be without ace striker Archie Thompson until mid-season and has other players struggling with, or coming back from, injury.

Herbert, on the other hand, has a squad "virtually 100 per cent fit and raring to go".

Only midfielder Diego will be sidelined by injury when their season kicks off. His only concern is in having to sit out the opening weekend with the bye.

Once they do start, there will be plenty of football given the new format which has every team playing 30 matches in the regular season.

In one 20-day period next month, the Phoenix play twice in Wellington and three times on the road in Perth and Melbourne (twice).

"It will definitely be more demanding on the players but we have no fear about the added burden," said Herbert. "The depth of the squad is going to be vitally important and will encourage everyone to look at the younger players."

While Herbert has met the criteria of signing the mandatory 20 players, he is still looking to add one more.

He had his first look at much-heralded Indonesian striker Bambang Pamungkas this week and liked what he saw.

Herbert said the pre-season friendly with Boca Juniors had been pivotal in shoring up his squad with Argentine Oscar Roberto "Toto" Cornejo and youngster Mirjan Pavlovic sealing their places.

With one or two of the newcomers poised to play, Herbert said he was likely to use the charismatic Paul Ifill, one of the club's marquee players, in a central/wide role with Chris Greenacre playing in behind newcomer Dylan Macallister, who is set to lead the attacking line.

This weekend's friendly with the national under-20 side will give Herbert his last look at his players before naming his first team of the season. He will be without marquee signing Jade North, who will play for the Socceroos in next week's away friendly with Slovenia.

"We have yet to see Jade here," said Herbert. "But I'm sure he will have no problem fitting in."

Herbert hinted he may well go with the All Whites' "three at the back" line-up to accommodate captain Andrew Durante, North and Ben Sigmund and use Troy Hearfield and Tony Lochhead or Manny Muscat in wing back roles. That would allow Leo Bertos to push further forward than he did when playing at the World Cup.

And his likely grand finalists?

"I would be guessing like everybody else," said Herbert. "But it promises to be a great season. Like the players, I can't wait."

WELLINGTON PHOENIX DRAW 2010-2011

All times NZ. All home games Westpac Stadium (unless stated)
* August 13: v Gold Coast United (h) 7.30pm.
* Aug 22: v Central Coast Mariners (h) 7.30pm.
* August 27: v Brisbane Roar (a) 10pm.
* September 5: v Perth Glory (a) 7pm.
* September 11: v Sydney FC (h) 7.15pm.
* September 15: v Melbourne Victory (a) 9.30pm.
* September 19: v Melbourne Heart (a) 5pm.
* September 24: v North Queensland Fury (h) 7.30pm.
* October 1: v Gold Coast United (a) 10pm.
* October 17: v Melbourne Heart (h) 5pm.
* October 22: v Adelaide United (a) 10pm.
* November 3: v Brisbane Roar (h) 7.30pm.
* November 7: v Perth Glory (a) 9pm.
* November 13: v Central Coast Mariners (h) 7.30pm.
* November 20: v Newcastle Jets (a) 9pm.
* November 24: v Melbourne Heart (h) 7.30pm.
* November 27: v Melbourne Victory (h) 6pm.
* December 1: v Sydney FC (a) 9pm.
* December 5: v Adelaide United (h), AMI Stadium 5pm.
* December 11: v Gold Coast United (a) 11.15pm.
* December 18: v Newcastle Jets (h) 7pm.
* December 27: v North Queensland Fury (a) 10.15pm.
* January 5: v Melbourne Victory (h) 7.30pm.
* January 9: v Central Coast Mariners (a) 7pm.
* January 16: v Brisbane Roar (a) 9pm.
* January 23: v Perth Glory (h) 5pm.
* January 30: v Newcastle Jets (h) 5pm.
* February 5: v Adelaide United (a) 9pm.
* February 9: v Sydney FC (a) 9pm.

Phoenix squad

Goalkeepers: Mark Paston, Reece Crowther

Defenders: Manny Muscat, Tony Lochhead, Jade North (marquee), James Musa (youth), Troy Hearfield, Ben Sigmund, Andrew Durante (captain)

Midfielders: Diego, Tim Brown (vice-captain), Leo Bertos, Oscar Roberto Cornejo, Daniel, Vince Lia, Marco Rojas (youth).

Strikers: Paul Ifill (marquee), Chris Greenacre, Mirjan Pavlovic (youth), Dylan Macallister

DID YOU KNOW?
* Eleven team A-League (up from 10)
* Melbourne Heart new team in 2010-11
* 165 matches (up from 135)
* All teams play 30 (15 home/15 away)
* Teams play each other three times
* 27-week season
* Significant increase in midweek fixtures
* Top-six play-offs - seven matches, four weeks
* Salary cap increased from A$2.25m to A$2.5m
* First-ever double-header on October 30 in Sydney
* Opening round, Sydney FC v Melbourne Victory - replay of last season's final
* The August 27 match, Brisbane Roar v Wellington Phoenix, one day after the league's fifth "birthday"
* The August 28 match, Sydney FC v Central Coast Mariners, replay of inaugural final
* The October 2 match, Melbourne Heart v Melbourne Victory, historic first clash of two teams from same city
* The Phoenix will play one home match away from Westpac Stadium - on December 5 v Adelaide United at AMI Stadium, Christchurch

- NZ Herald

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