Match Preview: Wellington v Wanderers

The Wanderers will travel to New Zealand’s capital for the first time in nearly four years as they go up against ladder leaders Wellington Phoenix.

The chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted the occasions the Wanderers have to cross the ditch, but they get their chance now as they look to leapfrog their hosts on Saturday.

The Red & Black come into the game off a two match home run, where they suffered a narrow defeat against the Melbourne Victory, but recovered on Friday night to earn a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Adelaide United.

It was a back’s to the wall performance at times, with star midfielder Jorrit Hendrix having to deputise at centre-back after Tom Beadling went off injured, but Dylan Pierias’ first goal for the club in the 23rd minute was enough for an important three points.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – DECEMBER 15: Dylan Pierias of the Wanderers celebrates kicking a goal with fans during the A-League Men round eight match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Adelaide United at CommBank Stadium, on December 15, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The result moved Marko Rudan’s side up to third on the table, and they are the second best defensive team in the competition with only eight goals conceded and five clean sheets for custodian Lawrence Thomas.

They will need a similarly strong defensive performance against a Wellington side full of confidence after reaching the summit with a 3-0 win away from home against Macarthur.

Kosta Barbarouses bagged a double, whilst goalkeeper Alex Paulsen recorded a remarkable third penalty save of the season as he denied Ulises Davila from the spot in the second half.

It was the perfect response to a surprise first defeat of the season in their previous match against Newcastle, where the Novocastrians shocked the Phoenix with a 3-0 win in Wellington.

It has been a remarkable start to life at Wellington for new coach Giancarlo Italiano, who took over from previous head coach Ufuk Talay.

Their season actually began against the Wanderers, and a stout defensive display saw Western Sydney frustrated as they were held to a 0-0 draw at home.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – OCTOBER 22: Jorrit Hendrix of the Wanderers passes the ball during the A-League Men round one match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Wellington Phoenix at CommBank Stadium, on October 22, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mike Owen/Getty Images)

Whilst their attack on paper has not set the world alight – the Wanderers and six other teams have scored more than them so far this season – their defence has ensured they are hard to beat and helped them to crucial tight victories.

Western Sydney are all too aware of the defensive quality of Wellington, but their attack has improved since their opening day stalemate, as the likes of Nicolas Milanovic, Lachie Brook and Marcus Antonsson have hit their stride in recent weeks, whilst youngsters Zac Sapsford and Marcus Younis have impressed off the bench.

The Wanderers will also be desperate to reverse a disappointing record on the road, with the side only winning four games away from home since the start of last season; they have only tasted victory once on the road so far this season in the Sydney Derby, but their other two away matches have seen them fight back from two goals down to earn a point.

It is a run that cannot continue forever if the Wanderers want to fight for the minor premiership and be a contender for silverware at the end of the season, but a win at Sky Stadium – a venue they haven’t won at since 2018 – would be a huge success for the club.

The Wanderers currently hold the advantage in the head-to-head stakes against the Phoenix, having won 16 matches to Wellington’s 12, and were unbeaten against the Phoenix last season.

They split the spoils in a 1-1 draw in Wollongong in December, before the Wanderers put on an attacking clinic in their final regular season home match as they put the Phoenix to the sword in a 4-0 demolition.