Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Muscat grounded despite Jets' Heskey fad

Manny Muscat (right) of the Phoenix during the round three A-League match between the Wellington Phoenix and Brisbane Roar. Photo / Getty Images
Manny Muscat (right) of the Phoenix during the round three A-League match between the Wellington Phoenix and Brisbane Roar. Photo / Getty Images

Manny Muscat admits Emile Heskey has been great for the A-League but the former England star will get no extra attention from him today.

The Phoenix, who take on the Jets in Newcastle at 5pm, are desperate for a result, having taken just two points from their last five matches. They are anchored at the bottom of the table and things need to turn around soon.

However, taking on the red-hot Jets is a tall order. Always hard-working, this year they have evolved into a more complete passing side playing with plenty of flair. After an opening round loss to Adelaide, Gary van Egmond's side have won four of their last five and sit one point off the top of the table.

Heskey has been an A-League revelation, scoring five goals in six appearances for the Jets, including a bicycle kick against Melbourne Victory and a vital winner last week against Western Sydney Wanderers.

The Jets have ordered 5000 extra Heskey replica shirts after the original batch ran out and club memberships have received a huge boost, while broadcaster Fox Sports ran a Heskey Cam in one match, devoting one camera to tracking the striker for an entire game.

It's quite a turnaround for Heskey, the subject of much derision in the latter part of his career in England (he scored just seven times in 62 internationals) at Birmingham, Wigan and Aston Villa.

"He has had a big impact on the league and has been good for the game down here," said Muscat. "Obviously he is a big danger but we have to think of him as just another player at the end of the day."

To compound the Wellington side's plight, over half the team, as well as coach Ricki Herbert, spent most of the week away on international duty with the All Whites, while leading scorer Stein Huysegems (ankle injury) is unlikely to start today.

"These are desperate times," Muscat told the Herald on Sunday, "and I guess we are all feeling it. We have to go in with the right attitude but still take it week by week. We have to recognise that we have the players to turn it around."

The Phoenix are also in the middle of a tough run of away games over five weeks, with trips to Adelaide, Melbourne, Newcastle and Perth sandwiching last weekend's home defeat to defending minor premiers Central Coast. It will equalise later in the season but is not what is needed right now.

Herbert has attempted to play a more attacking style this year, with a 4-4-2 formation including attack-minded players such as Paul Ifill and Louis Fenton on the flanks and two strikers. Instead of the Phoenix's traditional three-man axis in the centre of midfield, Alex Smith and Muscat have been left to hold the fort in the middle of the park.

They looked promising against Sydney in the first match but have been regularly exposed since. Smith is a tidy player but not someone who can control a game, while Muscat appeals as a lieutenant, rather than the chief, in midfield.

The duo haven't been helped by Fenton's inexperience and Ifill's attacking tendencies, which has seen them stretched from flank to flank.

"Against Melbourne, we got overrun a bit and identified some structural problems," said Muscat. "I thought we fixed those last week and held [the Mariners] well but didn't create much. I think Alex and I have gone okay and been fairly consistent, with the odd game not up to scratch.

"The new faces that have come in [Fenton, Huysegems, Benji Totori, Jeremy Brockie] have allowed us to play in a different way but maybe someone like Vinnie [Lia] will come back in to shore things up a bit."

On the surface, the portents for three points today don't look great, though the Phoenix have a good record against their hosts, with 11 wins in 16 games.

- Herald on Sunday

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