Previewing the Welly Nix’s First Playoff Game For Four Years

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Here we are then. Friday night at 9.50pm at AAMI Park in Melbourne. It’s the Melbourne Victory against the Wellington Phoenix with the winner advancing to play either Perth or Sydney in the semi-finals and the losers can finally get back to work on that long-ignored novel they’ve been writing because their season will be over as swiftly as a Valyrian steel dagger to the gut.

There’s a lot to break down here. The Welly Nix were in Perth on Sunday night and now have to back up five days later in Melbourne which is hardly ideal preparation, although Mark Rudan did rest half his probable starting eleven so the fatigue won’t be too bad, hopefully. And the massive occasion oughta make up for the rest of it. One factor that doesn’t matter is the 5-0 defeat they suffered that day. Rudan insulated his dudes from that one by effectively writing it off before the game even began. Still not the best preparation and you’d way rather hit this thing up on a winning streak but if the Nix don’t get up for this game on Friday night then it’ll be because they didn’t get up for this game on Friday night, nothing to do with the game before.

The Nix have lost three of their last four games, conceding 12 goals in those four contests, however they’ve also been a team under Rudan that likes that underdog tag and they’ve mostly risen to the occasion with big performances when they’ve needed to. Not always. Two away games to Perth and that Adelaide/Brisbane double away trip certainly stand out. But they competed hard with Sydney three times, with Perth that first time at home, with Melly Victory all three times, they pumped Newcastle to basically confirm their spot in the finals in late March. That hasn’t always led to results, to be fair. But that’s because, you know, this Nix team finished sixth. There are better more talented teams out there and even at their feistiest the Nix still need some luck against those types. But they’ll get bloody nowhere without that max effort. They’ll be up for it on Friday, don’t worry.

At this stage we mostly know what’s up with the starting team. Filip Kurto starts in goal. A back three of Steven Taylor, Andrew Durante, and Michal Kopczynski. Libby Cacace on the left. Looks like David Williams on the right, but not sure yet. Alex Rufer and Mandi in midfield. Sarpreet Singh in front of them. Roy Krishna and either David Williams or Max Burgess up front.

The one thing there is the right back hombre. David Williams has played there the last two games but let’s just say that there are issues with that one. Defensively he’ll give you all he’s got but that’s not his thing. Dude’s gonna get skinned by those Melly Vic forwards if he’s planted out there and maybe that’ll be the same with whoever plays there but at least Justin Gulley (if fit) or Callan Elliot wouldn’t also be dragging away one of the only two proven goal scorers in this squad. The Nix don’t keep clean sheets anyway. They absolutely have to score if they’re gonna advance. You can’t be crippling your own attack in a playoff game, mate.

What I reckon would work is chucking Max Burgess at right back. Or maybe at left back with Libby on the right, if that makes more sense, being a left-footer and all. Burgess needs to be in the starters after his last couple months of form but it looks like Mark Rudan wants Sarpreet Singh in there too. Burgie scraps hard, he’s got a bit of deceptive physicality about him, plus how many time have we seen him thread a gorgeous pass through from the midfield already? Those wingback roles need attacking runs and they need a player who can put a quality delivery into the box. This could work, I’m telling ya.

Part of the reason that Mark Rudan tanked that Perth game was that the Nix have done well against Melbourne Victory this season. Three draws outta three and they should have really won at least one of them. First game was away in the middle of that undefeated stretch and a 61st minute David Williams goal, curling it into the top corner from outside the box, gave the Nix the lead before Ola Toivonen stabbed in an equaliser quarter of an hour later.

Four weeks later they played again at the same venue and a brilliant first half saw WPX recover from going behind in the fifth minute to a Toivonen goal to lead 3-1 within thirty minutes thanks to a Willo goal and a double from Roy Krishna. James Troisi scored a lovely goal ten minutes after the break and then the Nix found themselves pressed back, hanging on defensively, until the 88th minute when Kosta Barbarouses slammed in the equaliser. Two games with two leads going into the final fifteen minutes and both games ended up as draws.  

Then in February they played at Eden Park and in a really entertaining and competitive game, the best of the three in terms of shared quality (though the two-goal comeback of the second was probably more box office), Roy Krishna slammed in the opener after 56 mins but a slightly dodgy penalty was awarded at the other end ten mins after and up stepped old mate Keisuke Honda to level it. So the Nix led in all three games. You already know that Mark Rudan is looking at each and every one of them feeling like his lads let it get away. Coaches are always a little disingenuous like that in blaming their own mistakes rather than the opposition’s quality but I guess they’re only interested in what they can control so fair enough. Regardless, there’s a proper argument to be made that the Phoenix were the better team in all three meetings and that’s reason to be confident.

It’s a whole other task to do that in the playoffs though. This is the first time the Nix have made the playoffs since 2015 but they haven’t actually won a playoff game since 2012 and they haven’t won a playoff game outside of Wellington since… well, ever. They’ve never done that. But the Melbourne Victory won the entire competition last season from one position lower on the ladder, winning an elimination final, a semi-final, and then the grand-final to lift the toilet seat. They’re stacked with players who have been here and done this before while the Nix only have a handful of players with any kind of playoff experience at all.

The Victory have had to balance their Asian Champions League commitments lately, so maybe that’s affected their domestic efforts. They had a four game run in Feb-Mar without a win and while they’ve bounced back with four wins from six since, they haven’t scored more than twice in any of those matches and defeats away to Sydney and Adelaide cost them a top two finish. They haven’t actually been as fluent as you’d expect for a team of defending champs, most notably at the back. Recurring injuries to George Niedermeier haven’t helped, while Corey Brown and All whites fullback Storm Roux have been pretty inconsistent.

In truth they’ve often been carried by the goals of Kosta Barbarouses and Ola Toivonen, as we’ve seen even in their clashes with the Phoenix this season. But that ain’t a weakness, that’s a threat. They have a speedy forward and a powerful forward, able to mix it up and find a way through one way or another. Meanwhile the Nix are even more reliant on one dude: Roy Krishna. Teams know that you can’t play a high line against Krishna and Kevin Muscat won’t be so silly as to ignore that knowledge. When the Nix have come up against tightly packed defensive lines they’ve usually struggled for an answer.

But Krishna has had success against this team, scoring three times against the Victory this season… so whether or not they can contain him (and vice versa with Kosta & Toivo) will go a long way towards deciding this one. Similarly Rufer and Mandi have to find a way to stop the Victory rolling through the middle and I’d expect that means a fair few fouls in this one. A scrappy game trends in the Nix’s favour. They have to make it as hard as possible for the Victory. You won’t get any predictions here… but it should at least be a decent game if the last few meetings are anything to go by.

The thing is, even if the Nix can defy the odds and make it past the Vix then they’ll be away to Perth in the semis. In two games away in Perth this season they’ve lost by a combined 8-0 margin. But as sixth placed finishers they’re guaranteed to be the lowest ranked team to progress if they do so Perth it must be. Getting to that game without a suspension or two is even more unlikely, methinks.

Which begs the question as to what a successful season would be for this team. Mark Rudan is leaving after this campaign so it’s a one and done situation, we’ve got all our chips on the table right now. Is making the playoffs after being so abysmal last season enough? I dunno. Winning a playoff game would be a success, surely. But chances are they don’t win on Friday night and if that happens then it’s going to be so hard not to think that they blew it when they failed to lock in fourth place and a home elimination final instead of sinking to sixth where, in the current format of playoffs, no sixth placed team has won a playoff game since 2010. More history that counts against the Nix here. Oh well, Mark Rudan loves the adversity. His team now have the most adverse path to the grand final imaginable. Bring it on.

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