A "FEISTY" week of training has proven to Chris Greenacre the Wellington Phoenix have put consecutive losses behind them and are ready to face Sydney.
The Phoenix host Sydney FC at Westpac Stadium tonight, a game they must win to continue their pursuit of a maiden A-League title.
Going into the match with back-to-back losses fresh in their minds may be less than ideal preparation, but Greenacre is backing his side to banish the losses and, in the process, banish the Sydneysiders.
"It's probably made us a little bit more determined and a bit more hungry," he said. "Training's been quite feisty this week, which is always good. There's been one or two tackles flying in and one or two arguments. You can tell that the boys are really getting focused and fired up."
Greenacre yesterday said the mood in the camp had been upbeat, despite the defeats coming on the back on sub-par performances.
"The boys kind of knew we didn't really perform to the best of our abilities and we've tried to put a hand on what the reason was.
"I think it was just a bad day at the office, to be honest."
The opponents in the last fortnight have contributed to the malaise, with a minor-premiership chasing Central Coast team following a Melbourne Victory outfit who have been something of a bogey side this season. Greenacre also thought, with finals football secured and on the horizon, the Phoenix may have subconsciously taken the foot off the pedal.
"We've probably just had the finals in the back of our minds and maybe focused on other things," he said. "We didn't really change anything so, if we were to put our finger on it, it was possibly that.
"But, I can assure you, we're fully focused on tomorrow evening and we're going to give it our best shot."
Greenacre reckoned the Phoenix would have no problem turning around their form now the stakes have been raised. A factor helping that turnaround was Wellington's success against Sydney this season, with the New Zealand side having taken out all three games between the teams.
Asked whether the Phoenix would take extra belief into the clash knowing they've had their opponents' number recently, Greenacre agreed but did add a warning.
"It's always been there - we've possibly been Sydney's bogey team. "We've got to take confidence from winning those other games. But it's going to be a tough game. Sydney have always produced good teams and always have good players.
"You have to be at your best to beat them and tomorrow will be no different."
Another element in the favour of the Phoenix was their comparative playoff experience. Wellington are the only side in the A-League to qualify for the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, something which Greenacre said would hold them in good stead during this campaign.
"We have quite a lot of experience in our squad, and having that extra incentive and knowing what the finals are all about is great in anybody's armoury. We probably know what to expect."
Greenacre expected a hectic start and a game that would take some time to settle down, after which the Phoenix would hope to take ownership of proceedings.
"It is down to us, as it has been all season. It's in our hands, it's our destiny and it's up to how we perform on the night."
Coach Ricki Herbert has a full squad from which to select his side, with fullback Tony Lochhead expected to take his place after shaking off a knee injury.
Five things the Phoenix can do to help ensure victory
1. Get Paul Ifill in to the game. It might sound logical but when Ifill plays well, the Phoenix win football games and the Barbados international needs plenty of touches on Friday night so he can weave his magic against Sydney, who he has scored against every time he has met the Sky Blue outfit this season.
2. Be tighter at the back. The Phoenix have a habit of leaking goals at inconvenient times and, although skipper Andrew Durante is one of the premier central defenders in the league, has let his standards slip in the past two games. He left Carlos Hernandez with oceans of room to score two weeks ago against the Melbourne Victory and he didn't pick up enough against the Central Coast Mariners. Expect Durante and centre-back partner Ben Sigmund to have a big one on Friday.
3. Think about changing the central midfield pairing. Here's a number for you: 0. That's the number of goal assists Vince Lia and Tim Brown have provided for the Phoenix this season. Granted Lia has spent a handful of games at right-back and a few others on the sideline with injury and suspension but American utility Alex Smith offers more in attack and provides a better foil to Brown. Admittedly Smith is also yet to register a goal assist this season, but when the Phoenix won four straight in January and February, including three on the road, Brown and Smith were the centre midfield pairing. Coincidence?
4. Find a way for Dani Sanchez to be effective. The Spaniard was nearly untouchable in December but he has gone off the radar in recent times. He has silky skills but a nagging knee injury may be bothering Sanchez and the Phoenix need to find a way to get him involved to take advantage of what he can offer them in attack.
5. Soak up the atmosphere. There will be plenty of people at the Cake Tin on Friday and the Phoenix players always talk about how much they love playing in front of a big crowd and they need to embrace that.
- Daniel Richardson