|MAYBE THIS TIME: The Phoenix look good enough to go all the way to the A-League grand final this season. Coach Ricki Herbert, foreground, with, from left, Andrew Durante, Stein Huysegems and Jeremy Brockie.|
A year is a long time in sport, and the Wellington Phoenix's build-up to the 2012-13 A-League season could not be more different to last season's. This time twelve months ago Ricki Herbert barely had eleven fit players, Terry Serepisos was heading down the gurgler, and there were doubts whether the 'Nix could even last the season.
Twelve months on and under new ownership, Herbert not only has a full squad, but there is plenty to be optimistic about; Sam Worthington from the Dom-Post reports:
Savvy recruitment on top of a solid core means the Wellington Phoenix enter their sixth A-League season with their best ever chance of claiming the title.
Coach Ricki Herbert has retained the bulk of the squad that has qualified for three straight finals and against the odds finished fourth last season.
New recruits Stein Huysegems, Jeremy Brockie, Benjamin Totori, Glen Moss and Michael Boxall are all international players but are not prima donnas and should fit in snugly with the team's tight knit culture.
The Phoenix had the third-best defence in the league last season and that should continue as long as Leo Bertos makes a decent fist of his switch to right back.
Manny Muscat and Alex Smith form a no-frills but highly promising midfield engine room while, crucially, Herbert has bought pace in the front third.
Brockie, Totori and teenagers Louis Fenton, Tyler Boyd and Ricardo Clarke all bring much needed gas and a direct, no-fear approach while experienced pros Paul Ifill and Huysegems should provide the polish and direction.
There are three majors: a lack of a pure goalscorer, the continuing away struggles and the fact that while the Phoenix appear better, so does nearly everyone else.
The Phoenix scored the third fewest goals in the league last season and two regular contributors, Chris Greenacre and Tim Brown, have retired.
Winning a title will be difficult without a cold-blooded marksman like Shane Smeltz, Besart Berisha or Archie Thompson. Instead, Herbert will need Brockie, Huysegems and Ifill to share the load and score around double figures.
The road woes are well documented and although there was improvement last season, the Phoenix need to finish higher in the league to give themselves a realistic shot of progressing to the grand final.
A deeper and more competitive squad should help in that regard with Herbert able to freshen up his troops if fatigue or complacency set in.
We have high hopes that this could indeed be the Year of the Phoenix, although we have said that before and ended up disappointed. But this is a generally settled squad which has had a lengthy build-up to the new season. If they can score goals, they will be one of the most competitive teams in the A-League.
It all starts tonight against Sydney FC at the Ring of Fire, and a big crowd is expected to see if Sydney's marquee signing Alesandro Del Piero still has the goods that helped Italy to World Cup glory in 2006. We're picking a win the the Nix tonight, and for Wellington to once again become a Phoenix fortress. Game-time is but a few hours away; bring it on!