Injury woes worry ambitious Phoenix

EXCLUSIVE: Wellington Phoenix are aiming to go one better this season but coach Ernie Merrick is worried injuries will ruin the start to their campaign.

Phoenix are in Sydney for a week-long camp, having defeated Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1 on Sunday and APIA Leichhardt 5-3 on Tuesday. They’ll also face Sydney FC in Wollongong on Friday.

Singh on song for Phoenix

Merrick brought the entire squad but star recruit Jeffrey Sarpong (match fitness), Ben Sigmund (hip flexor) and Alex Rodriguez (thigh) had been battling injury in the lead-up.

Sigmund started on Sunday, while Rodriguez played on Tuesday, but have missed large parts of pre-season and are underdone. Merrick said Sarpong is unlikely to play any part.

Wellington, who lost 5-1 to Melbourne City in the FFA Cup last month, start their 2015-16 A-League at home to Newcastle on Sunday October 11.

“We’ve got the players, but I’m not sure we’re going to get them all fit enough to start off the season as we should,” Merrick told FourFourTwo.

“In my experience, you’ve got to start off the first two or three games with a win.

“I wanted to have my best players available for this week’s camp but it hasn’t worked out that way. That’s the disappointing thing.”

Sarpong’s progress, in particular, is a concern for Wellington, who crumbled in the latter stages of last season, having sat atop the table with weeks left in the campaign.

The former Netherlands Under-20 international is seen by Merrick as a like-for-like replacement for departed Johnny Warren medalist Nathan Burns but is struggling with fitness after months without a club and regular training.

“He arrived about two weeks ago,” Merrick said. “It was a very long drawn out negotiation.

“He did trial with a couple of other teams. He’s good at staying fit and he hasn’t put on any weight.

“He hardly missed a game for NAC Breda last year in the Dutch Eredivisie, so he played right up until May but he’s dropped off the pace because he hasn’t trained on a regular basis.”

Sarpong’s success is paramount for Merrick, with the 27-year-old likely to be converted from an attacking midfielder into a striker.

The former Melbourne Victory boss has had success in the past converting players and hopes to replicate that with the former Ajax man.

“I did it with Robbie Kruse, I did with Nathan Burns and a few others I had success with, there’s some I didn’t,” Merrick said.

“I’m hoping I can do that with Jeffrey.

“If you see some of his highlights, playing with Luis Suarez on YouTube, he’s got the skills, so it’s about getting him in to the right areas as a striker.

“I prefer to go for the players who’ve got the skills I want, the speed, dribbling ability, good technique, someone who can strike a ball and convert them.”

The Phoenix boss said the playing group recently got together to set their goals for the 2015-16 campaign, which articulated they were desperate to atone for last term’s late slide which saw them bundled out of the finals in the first week.

“They’re aiming to go another step further than they did last year,” Merrick admitted.

“They want to be in the top four and they want to do well in the finals. That’s the challenge.

“We’ve retained every single player that was a regular last year, except for Nathan Burns.”