Stuart Dye at the World Cup

Stuart Dye blogs from the Fifa World Cup

Soccer: Once beaten, twice shy

By Michael Brown

Andrew Durante scores for the Phoenix against Boca Juniors on Friday night. Photo / Getty Images
Andrew Durante scores for the Phoenix against Boca Juniors on Friday night. Photo / Getty Images

You have to go back nearly two years for the last time the Wellington Phoenix were beaten in the capital.

It's an extraordinary record and one in which the club take great pride. If visiting teams didn't already know what to expect before arriving, they often get a taste of it with a bumpy ride into Wellington airport and a cold blast as soon as they get off the plane.

But the Phoenix are also a pretty good football side. On Friday night they claimed the prized scalp of Boca Juniors, one of the biggest and most successful clubs in world football, with a 2-1 win in a pre-season friendly.

The Argentinians were without a host of players, including Juan Roman Riquelme and Martin Palermo and, while they were up for the 'fight' (in what was often a spiteful match) it's debatable whether they were up for the footballing contest in the cold and windy conditions.

When football was being played, there was a lot to like about what Wellington produced.

They were resolute at the back and the biggest dangers came when they gave the ball away in dodgy areas.

They played slick and snappy football and threatened with an attacking approach built around the combined skills of Paul Ifill and Leo Bertos.

Perhaps the biggest advantage they have just a fortnight out from the start of their fourth A-League season is their ability to call on virtually their entire starting XI from last season. Only central defender Jon McKain is missing, having taken up a lucrative contract in Saudi Arabia, which means the Phoenix have the most settled look of any squad in the competition.

"I think we can go into the season pretty confident," midfielder Tim Brown says. "I don't think we have really had that at this club before. I think there's always a bit of a danger with expectations but I think we are pretty comfortable with it as well. Just quietly, there are some pretty high goals being set in there," he says as he gestures to the home changing shed.

So they should after getting to within one game of last year's grand final. There's still some work to be done before the Phoenix kick their season off in three weeks (they have a first-round bye). Most of it needs to be around the final shape of their squad. Ricki Herbert has 17 players on his books but must inflate this to at least 20 by the end of the month. He has to sign another under-21 player (each club must have three) and he would also like another two attacking players and a central defender.

Young Sydney striker Mirjan Pavlovic is likely to be signed as the under-21 player. He's big, strong, reasonably skilful and awkward to defend against, much like All Whites striker Chris Wood, and would be a genuine consideration off the bench.

Roberto 'Toto' Cornejo and Chris Shuker are also likely to win contracts. The pair have been brought to Wellington on trial but with a view to signing rather than merely for Herbert to look at them.

It's hoped Cornejo is the creative midfielder the club have been searching for.

The Phoenix have never really had a player like that before but need a ball-player, someone who can unlock defences with a killer ball, to take them to the next level. He showed a couple of nice touches against Boca in the limited time he had but Herbert seems pretty sold on the diminutive Argentinian.

"Toto I like," he says. "I think he will be a good ball-player. We need someone in the hole who can change games and hopefully he's the right player for us."

Shuker is even smaller than Cornejo. The former Manchester City and Tranmere Rovers man is an old-fashioned winger, known for his ability to get good balls into the box. He arrived in Wellington just hours before the Boca game and saw only 10 minutes of action.

Those two would fill Wellington's import slots and leave three spaces available for Australasians should they feel the need to strengthen the squad throughout the season. They really need to sign another central defender and had hoped to convince former Socceroo Jade North to partner former team-mate Andrew Durante at the back. North is trialing for a club in Beijing but if that doesn't work out for him, he is expected to sign for the Phoenix.

Herbert will also talk to Simon Elliott but it's doubtful the 36-year-old will sign.

"The balance of the group is here from last year and we have pretty much exactly the same team as that which played in the finals," Herbert says. "I think the depth and quality is growing and that's important. It's important we bring players to the club who will challenge.

"Having the bye in round 1 might be a blessing for us. It's another week to prepare and we will try a few things over the next two or three weeks."

Herbert still isn't sure which formation he will employ. He wants to play the same 3-4-3 the All Whites did at the World Cup but won't if he can't sign another central defender. He has options, though, and the arrival of Dylan Macallister allows Wellington to play with one, two or three up front.

It all means there's a lot swirling around Westpac Stadium - and it's not just the wind. Confidence and the feel-good factor is high after the All Whites' World Cup campaign and the retention of Herbert as coach.

A lot can still go wrong, especially if key players are injured and expectations get the better of them, but the Phoenix see themselves as genuine contenders in 2010/11 and will go close to that if they can maintain their unbeaten run at home.

- Herald on Sunday

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