Top-four ambitions in Phoenix's hands

WHILE speculation about which teams will make the Hyundai A-League 2008/09 playoffs hits fever-pitch, Wellington Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert is remaining focused on his side’s task at hand – beating the Newcastle Jets on Sunday.

WHILE speculation about which teams will make the Hyundai A-League 2008/09 playoffs hits fever-pitch, Wellington Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert is remaining focused on his side-s task at hand - beating the Newcastle Jets on Sunday.

A win at Westpac Stadium will keep the Phoenix right in the hunt for a top-four spot with three matches remaining; a loss will mean the Phoenix will most likely have to win all three of those final matches to have a chance of making the playoffs in just their second season in existence.

It promises to be a pivotal clash on Sunday and while Herbert acknowledges the importance of taking something from it, he has hammered home to his players the need to treat the match as they would any other.

“If we can get three points from this then we-ll be well in the equation but I-m not putting any added pressure on the players, they know what they need to do and everyone-s looking forward to this one.

“Our ambitions are in our own hands [to make the top four] and we need to show that from a performance point of view. But at this stage we can-t look any further down the track than Sunday. If the foot comes off the pedal now then our final game of the season against Melbourne will mean nothing anyway, and the players are aware of that.

“It is step-by-step and even the sides above us will be treading pretty carefully because I don-t think anyone is taking things for granted.”

The Phoenix sit in fifth position on the Hyundai A-League 2008/09 table on 22 points, four points adrift of Melbourne Victory and two points in front of Sydney FC. With seventh-placed Perth Glory needing a miracle to make the playoffs and the Jets definitely out of contention, the Phoenix know a win on Sunday will be huge boost to their finals ambitions.

It-s been a disastrous season for the Jets, who won the championship in 2008 but have propped up the table for most of season 2008/09. The Phoenix have recorded a win (home) and a draw (away) against the Novocastrians in their previous two fixtures and on Sunday will want to make it two wins from two matches at Westpac Stadium this season.

Herbert said the Jets would be desperate to make life difficult for the teams above them as they sought to end things on a brighter note.

“There always going to be pride from teams irrespective of where they are on the table and I-m sure Newcastle will be like that. But we-ve done well at home this season and we need to continue that on Sunday.”

Regular Phoenix skipper Andrew Durante has been ruled out of Sunday-s match after being red-carded in last weekend-s 3-2 loss to Queensland Roar in Brisbane, while defensive midfielder Jon McKain will also sit in the stand after collecting his fifth yellow card of the season in the same match.

Ben Sigmund returns from injury in place of Durante to link with Karl Dodd in the heart of the Phoenix defence against the Jets, while Brazilian-turned-Kiwi playmaker Daniel is tipped to start as Herbert looks to create more attacking opportunities.

“We-ll still go with the standard three up front of Leo Bertos, Shane Smeltz and Troy Hearfield that we played against Queensland rather than having just the two up front that we used for the previous six or seven weeks.

“It-s not a case of all-out attack; it-s what we-ve been doing all along. We-ve had four wins and a draw in our past seven games and that show-s we-re capable of winning games with what we-ve been doing.

“I think Daniel will give us something a little bit different coming out of midfield from an attacking perspective, though I-m yet to settle on what the midfield might be at this stage. It-ll be very much about balance - we-ve got to be careful that we don-t go out all guns blazing and start copping goals at the other end.”

Midfielder Tim Brown will wear the captain-s armband and could play a slighter different role given the absence of his regular midfield partner McKain.

“Tim-s a very intelligent young man and he accepts the responsibility of leadership very well,” Herbert said.

“He-s an absolute die-hard Phoenix man and he understands his responsibilities not only from a captaincy point of view but also in terms of his own performance. His role made change slightly on Sunday and that might link up a little more going forward.

“The consistency of him playing there with Michael Ferrante and Jon has really helped his game. Breaking that partnership is a little disappointing but those are the things you have to face.”

Sunday-s clash will be bonus for children, with the Phoenix throwing open the Westpac Stadium gates to youngsters.

Every paying adult will be able to take a maximum of three children (15 and under) to the game at no extra cost. However, all children must have a ticket to enter Westpac Stadium. The free tickets can be collected on purchase of an adult ticket at the Wellington Phoenix store (corner of Cuba and Dixon streets), Ticketek outlets and Westpac Stadium from midday on Sunday. Those who have already purchased tickets can also get their free children-s tickets from those venues.

Sunday-s big match kicks off at 7pm.

Sunday, January 4 2009 Wellington Phoenix v Newcastle Jets Westpac Stadium Local kickoff: 7pm (5pm AEDT) Referee: Craig Zetter

Live and exclusive broadcast on FOX Sports 1 and Sky Sport 1. Hyundai A-League club radio broadcast partner is Radio Network (Wellington) 1035AM and 1233 ABC Newcastle. To purchase tickets visit www.premier.ticketek.co.nz

Wellington Phoenix squad: 1. Mark PASTON (gk), 2. Jeremy CHRISTIE, 3. Tony LOCHHEAD, 5. Karl DODD, 6. Tim BROWN (c), 7. Leo BERTOS, 9. Shane SMELTZ, 10. Michael FERRANTE, 11. DANIEL, 12. Richard JOHNSON, 13. Troy HEARFIELD, 15. Adam KWASNIK, 18. Ben SIGMUND, 20. Glen MOSS (gk), 23. Costa BARBAROUSES, 25. Manny MUSCAT. * one to be omitted.

Newcastle Jets squad: 1. Ante COVIC (gk), 2. Adam GRIFFITHS, 5. James HOLLAND, 7. Kaz PATAFTA, 8. Matt THOMPSON, 9. Joel GRIFFITHS, 10. Jin-Hyung SONG, 11. Tarek ELRICH, 12. Jobe WHEELHOUSE, 13. Adam D'APUZZO, 14. Shaun ONTONG, 16. Ben KANTAROVSKI, 17. Antun KOVACIC, 26. Mark MILLIGAN, 29. Sean ROONEY, 30. Justin PASFIELD (gk). * one to be omitted.

*Head-to-head: All matches (played 5): Wellington Phoenix wins 2, Newcastle Jets wins 2 (1 draw). In Wellington (played 2): Wellington Phoenix wins 1, Newcastle Jets wins 1 (0 draws).