So the first Big Blue of the season is here, and with it yet again comes a lot of controversies.
At the recent Football Writers’ Festival in Jamberoo, I had the privilege of meeting promising young sports writer Shabab Hossain.
This week I challenged him to something of a duel. I gave Shabab the task of identifying the strengths of the Victory’s game, those vital to providing a win on Friday night.
I have responded with exactly what the Phoenix need to do if they are to ride into Melbourne and stun the reigning champions on their home deck.
Here are our thoughts.
Shabab Hossain – Why Melbourne Victory can win
In the pre-match hype to this clash, you’ll probably hear a lot about how Phoenix have matched Victory three times out of three this season. It’s missing one small detail though.
In those fixtures, not once was Kevin Muscat able to field his two star players – Japanese icon Keisuke Honda and Swedish World Cup player Ola Toivonen – together.
Finally, for the most important matchup between the two sides this season, the dynamic duo will be fit and raring to go.
Sure, Victory have not ended this season as convincingly as they would have liked. But you do not need to look too far back for the last time they were able to clinch the A-League championship with an under-performing team during the regular season.
Muscat possesses a ridiculous amount of star power, who are all capable of turning a match on its head even if the tide is against them.
Obviously, they have the aforementioned duo, but Terry Antonis, Kosta Barbarouses and the promising talent Elvis Kamsoba from the bench are not to be ignored.
As for the opposition, the huge drop in form after hearing that their manager is leaving to head across the ditch will make this match an uphill battle.
Give the likes of Roy Krishna and Sarpreet Singh an inch, and they’ll take a mile. Victory’s back four will need to be wary of the pace that Krishna can generate and his fleet footwork which could leave them in his dust.
The wide areas have been especially troubling for Victory in their fixtures with Phoenix this season. Mark Rudan’s unusual 3-4-1-2 formation is a code that Muscat has not yet cracked. Liberato Cacace and Louis Fenton have burst up and down the flanks, creating chance after chance.
However, the season-ending injury to Fenton, though unfortunate, gives Muscat a slight opening when going forward.
This match promises to be an enticing fixture as these two quality teams battle it out for a place in the semi-finals.
Stuart Thomas – Why Wellington Phoenix can win
I’m beginning to sense a swelling belief that the Phoenix have lost their mojo off the back of Mark Rudan’s apology and pending departure from the club.
While disappointing, any suggestion those events will have a significant impact on Friday’s elimination final is foolhardy. Rudan is a man of resilience and fortitude; traits he has imparted on his squad this season.
Fundamental to their success will be the ability to strike on the counter as they have done so successfully in 2018-19.
The front line of Roy Krishna, Sarpreet Singh and David Williams is as explosive as any, and has already provided headaches for the Victory this season.
Much will be made of the three draws played out between the clubs and so it should be, with Wellington a little unlucky not to grab all three at AAMI Park on at least one occasion.
The reality for is that Melbourne have failed to completely conquer Rudan’s game plan thus far and the likelihood of that proving difficult once again is high.
Wellington need to be content with a deficit in possession, preferring to defend diligently, build pressure and draw turnovers, before releasing Singh with long, angled balls to utilise his speed.
There are attacking opportunities presented when Georg Niedermeier and Thomas Deng are forced to compete with agile and robust attackers, yet only quick service will allow the Phoenix to apply that pressure.
Wellington have been less impressive in defence than the Victory, yet the recent return of Stephen Taylor solidifies the back four, a line backed up by the best goalkeeper in the league in Filip Kurto.
If David Williams resumes a more forward and dangerous role than the one he played in the makeshift side that Rudan sent onto the pitch against the Glory last weekend, the Victory had better be alert and alarmed.
Cacace is a star of the future and potentially the man most likely when it comes to providing balls into the box from more structured attacking situations.
Along with Max Burgess, Cacace must occupy the wide defenders to ensure his side maintain width when a quick counter is unavailable.
Through the midfield, Alex Rufer and Mandi Sosa must keep Terry Antonis and Carl Valeri under constant pressure if they are to force the errors that will result in opportunistic moments on which to pounce.
While the odds will be running in strong favour of the home side, Wellington enter the encounter with an undefeated record. That record is for one simple reason: Rudan’s explosive front line worries the Victory defence and Kevin Muscat.
If they are switched on tonight, the Phoenix could worry the Victory out of the finals.