Melbourne Victory v Wellington Phoenix
AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 9.50 tonight (NZT)
In the last three years, Wellington Phoenix skipper Andrew Durante has dreaded the end of the A-League football season.
This year, he's relishing it as his side will be involved in finals football.
Tonight the Phoenix face Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park in round one of the competition's three-week knockout climax.
"There's nothing worse than the season being over and you've got to the turn on the TV and watch other teams fighting it out for championships," Durante said.
"It's a horrible feeling watching it. You just wish it was you. You want to be a part of it."
A standout campaign under first-time A-League coach Mark Rudan saw the Phoenix enter the top six in mid-December and never relinquish their position. Their reward is a seat at the A-League's top table with just half a dozen places reserved.
After a virtual glut when the Phoenix made the top six in three consecutive seasons from 2009/10 to 2011/12, this is just their second foray into the post-season in the seven years since.
The team have defied the pre-season expectations of just about every pundit on both sides of the Tasman, most predicting Wellington would end the season last.
But riding off the back of Rudan's relentless drive for perfection, a powerful team culture, the reinvigoration of several careers and the reinvention of others, the Phoenix have impressed every observer with their exciting, attacking style and consistent form, particularly at home.
If momentum is any sort of factor going into this game, Wellington certainly don't have any. Their last gasp 3-2 win over Melbourne City two weeks ago was the one bright spot in what has been a fairly mediocre end to the regular season.
They lost three of their last four games, taking them out of contention to host a knockout match this weekend and dropping them from fourth to sixth.
Before that though, this team showed what they're capable of. The goals flowed in March — 15 of them, in fact — as they surged into fourth place before dropping off in April.
Now, last weekend's 5-0 loss at the hands of minor premiers Perth Glory has quickly been forgotten.
Up to six changes are likely to the largely second-string side that lost in Western Australia five days ago. Durante will return to lead the team with Filip Kurto back in goal behind him. Roy Krishna, fresh from snaring the A-League's Golden Boot, will lead the line with Max Burgess and Alex Rufer also likely to return in midfield.
Rudan has a simple message for his side ahead of what could be his last game in charge, following his decision to depart New Zealand at the end of the season.
"I want them to play like it's their last ever game," he said.
"We don't look further away. It's purely about [tonight]. I want them to give everything of themselves and put everything into this."