Preview: Wellington Phoenix v Adelaide United
Played 19 - Wins: Phoenix 4, Adelaide 9, Draws: 6
Phoenix 2 - 2 Adelaide, February 24, 2013
Past five matches
Wellington Phoenix head coach Ernie Merrick will be thrilled with the news Carlos Hernandez has been passed fit to play against Adelaide United. The 31-year-old attacking midfielder has been critical to Wellington's best performances this season with three goals and six assists in 12 games but was in doubt after limping off during the Phoenix's 5-0 thrashing of Melbourne Victory a fortnight ago. Hernandez then travelled to the United States to play just seven minutes for Costa Rica in a friendly against South Korea before returning to New Zealand but has been named in Wellington's squad for Saturday's game.
Hernandez's international and club teammate Kenny Cunningham is also back in Merrick's squad, while Matthew Ridenton returns from injury with Alex Rufer omitted after last week's 2-1 loss to Brisbane Roar.
Wellington will face the form team of the competition at Westpac Stadium with Adelaide United undefeated in seven matches. The Reds were lucky to claim a 2-2 draw last week against Melbourne Heart with Ryan Griffiths scoring a late equaliser but with Sergio Cirio fit again, Adelaide head coach Josep Gombau will head to Wellington with plenty of confidence.
The big issue:
Phoenix - After Wellington's big win over Victory in their last home game, most pundits predicted the Phoenix would make the A-League finals. While Merrick's men were again competitive against A-League leaders Brisbane last week, they also lost and cannot afford that result to be the start of a mini-slump. For all Wellington's good work since just before Christmas, they remain four points outside the top six and must keep picking up points to ensure they make the finals. Can they bounce back this week?
Adelaide - Sixteen rounds into the 2013-14 A-League season and Gombau's side are set to play Wellington for the first time on Saturday. Gaining a mental edge on the Phoenix this weekend could be crucial for Adelaide, who face a tough run into the finals. In the remaining 11 rounds, the Reds have seven away games, including two in Wellington. They have only won once away from home this season and another victory on the road this week would hand them a crucial psychological boost.
The game breaker:
Stein Huysegems - When the Belgian striker missed a penalty in Wellington's 1-0 loss to Central Coast Mariners at North Sydney Oval before Christmas, few would have predicted Huysegems would top the A-League goal-scoring table just over a month later. But that is what has happened with the 31-year-old having struck six times since in as many games. Huysegems (eight goals) leads Alessandro Del Piero and James Troisi (both seven) and his lethal left boot could decide the Phoenix's fate against Adelaide.
Prediction: Wellington 2-1 Adelaide
The Phoenix have lost just two home games this season - both against the Roar - and, apart from the four goals scored by Brisbane, have only conceded twice. That impressive home form and the memories of thrashing Melbourne a fortnight ago, will give Merrick and his squad plenty of confidence as they prepare to face Adelaide.
One negative for the Phoenix will be their recent record against the Reds. Adelaide have won four of their past seven meetings with Wellington and lost just once. But for all their good results over the past month, Adelaide have ridden their luck for significant periods against Sydney (2-2 draw), Brisbane (2-1 win), Western Sydney (1-0 win) and Heart (2-2 draw). If they do not produce a 90-minute performance soon, they will eventually get caught out.
Wellington's energetic style of play led by a midfield trio of Albert Riera, Vince Lia and Cunningham could test the Reds. Throw in the in-form pair of Hernandez and Huysegems in the front third and the Phoenix could be ready to claim a rare win over Adelaide.