Soccer: Phoenix rise from uncertainty to title contenders

Emmanuel Muscat of the Phoenix celebrates with teammates after scoring. Photo / Getty Images
Emmanuel Muscat of the Phoenix celebrates with teammates after scoring. Photo / Getty Images

Only two months ago Wellington were suffering immense financial turmoil with their future in the A-League uncertain, now they're knocking on the door of the top-two on the ladder and looking like title contenders.

Winless on the road until their 1-0 victory over the Gold Coast last week, the Phoenix continued their resurgence away beating Newcastle 1-0 at Ausgrid Stadium on Friday night for a club-record two away wins on the trot.

They now sit in third place on the table, only a point behind reigning premiers Brisbane.

"Yeah gee, it's kind of dizzy up there," the typically low-key Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert joked.

"I think everybody thought we'd be at the bottom.

"But no, in all seriousness, everybody's been working very hard at this club.

"It's been a big transition at the club as you know. We haven't invested outside of the group that we've got. I've backed this group.

"I think you can dip in to the (transfer) window, you can do what you like but it's a responsibility to get the best out of the players that we can and they're certainly delivering."

One player who has continued to shine under the guidance of Herbert is Friday night's match-winner Emmanuel Muscat.

The defender, who was fielding offers from his home-town clubs Melbourne Victory and Melbourne Heart, committed to the Phoenix after Friday's match for the next two seasons.

He joined captain Andrew Durante and Paul Ifill as players who have re-signed with the club long-term.

"He was a very unlikely hero," Durante said of Muscat.

"That's what the team's all about, heroes and people stepping up.

"For a right-back to come in and win it for us, it just shows what this team's all about. Anyone can score on the day and everyone helps each other out.

"We usually give him a lot of stick at training about his shooting drills, but we'll leave him alone this week."

Two years ago Wellington finished in the top four and became the first ever New Zealand side to reach the playoffs of an Australian football competition.

They got to the preliminary final, where they fell 4-2 to eventual title winners Sydney FC.

And while Herbert isn't about to get ahead of himself, he feels the current squad has what it takes to challenge for the title.

"There was a bit of doubt this year on what the Phoenix would do," Herbert said.

"I can understand that, there was a bit of turmoil, but we don't have to go back to that time.

"This is a very resolute group, we're very tight, I think we're very proud.

"We've set out, not to prove people wrong, but to deliver and perform at the best level we possibly can.

"And gee, if that's good enough to finish second, third, fourth or whatever, then fantastic.

"But we're not going to let go, we've got a lot at stake here."

- AAP

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