Phoenix proud of Kiwi contingent

HAVING supplied the core of the New Zealand team that went agonisingly close to pulling off a stunning upset against world champions Italy, Wellington Phoenix FC has good reason to be especially proud of Thursday morning’s thrilling result.

HAVING supplied the core of the New Zealand team that went agonisingly close to pulling off a stunning upset against world champions Italy, Wellington Phoenix FC has good reason to be especially proud of Thursday morning-s thrilling result.

Seven Phoenix players are in the New Zealand squad preparing for the Confederations Cup in South Africa, with four starting in Thursday-s 4-3 loss to the Azzurri in a stunning tournament warmup in Pretoria.

The Phoenix-s contribution to the New Zealand squad makes the Wellington club the most represented outfit at the Confederations Cup with seven players - one more than Liverpool and Valencia and two more than AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, Villareal and Egypt-s Al Ahly.

Defenders Tony Lochhead and David Mulligan and midfielders Tim Brown and Leo Bertos all ran on in Pretoria in what was almost an incredible boilover. Phoenix teammates Ben Sigmund, Jeremy Christie and goalkeeper Mark Paston were on the bench.

Coached by Phoenix mentor Ricki Herbert and captained by Brown, the All Whites led three times and pushed Italy all the way before finally going down to the reigning world champions in a result that few would ever have predicted.

Back home in Wellington with the remainder of the Phoenix squad gearing up for the Hyundai A-League 2009/10 campaign, Phoenix captain Andrew Durante joined the chorus of praise for the New Zealanders- performance.

“It-s fantastic. The boys haven-t had a lot of game-time together but they played like a team that has been together a while. They knocked the ball around well and, even though they were playing Italy, they didn-t show any fear and didn-t let themselves get caught up in the whole emotion of playing against the world champions.”

Durante knew the Kiwis would prove a tough challenge for the Italians but he never thought they would go close to grabbing an historic win following two goals to Celtic striker Chris Killen and another to former Phoenix striker Shane Smeltz.

“To be honest I thought that if they could keep Italy to 2-0 that would be a great result. But the boys were fantastic and showed a lot of heart. They backed themselves and to lead the game three times was an amazing effort.

“They tired towards the end and that showed as Italy brought on some of their big name players needing to chase the game. They Kiwis went so close to grabbing the draw and will be rightly disappointed not to have got that or even the win, but this result is still fantastic for New Zealand football.”

He was particularly proud of the contributions of his Phoenix boss and teammates.

“It was great work by Ricki. He had the team set up really well and tactically he got the gameplan right. The whole team was well organised and he-ll be very pleased to have got three goals against Italy and made people sit up and take notice.

“It was good to see Leo getting a couple of assists in two goals. He-s in excellent form, as are all the Kiwi boys at the Phoenix. They-ll come back to Wellington with a heap of confidence and that bodes well for our season.”

Phoenix chief executive Tony Pignata said both the Phoenix and the New Zealand national team were benefiting from the mutual connection. With the Phoenix entering their third season in the Hyundai A-League and New Zealand on the cusp of qualifying for next year-s World Cup in South Africa, there are excellent synergies for club and country.

“Seven of the players in the New Zealand team play for the Phoenix and enjoy the professional Phoenix environment and the guidance of Ricki on a daily basis. Having New Zealand make the World Cup would be massive for football in this country and the Phoenix is behind those efforts all the way.

“Our drive is to lead the growth of the game in New Zealand and it-s clear that is happening. There-s huge optimism around the club about how the game is developing here and that-s certain to flow through into the club-s campaign.”

Meanwhile, Phoenix defender Manny Muscat will return to Wellington shortly after representing Malta in two matches. Muscat started in his international debut in Malta-s 1-0 loss to the Czech Republic in a friendly in Jablonec and came on as a late substitute in a 4-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Sweden in Gothenburg on Thursday morning.