Melbourne Victory will be looking to maintain the heat on rivals Melbourne City by accounting for bottom-placed Wellington Phoenix at AAMI Park on Sunday.
Aside from a blip against Perth Glory in the west, Victory have enjoyed good form in the closing months of the campaign – that is domestically, at least.
They capitulated in Asia midweek, thumped 6-2 by K-League 1 side Ulsan Hyundai in South Korea, resulting in elimination from the Asian Champions League.
Kevin Muscat’s team looked lost in attack and porous in defence, really crumbling after Lawrence Thomas made a meal of a 12th-minute clearance that should have been routine.
Against the Nix, they will face a team that has little to play for other than pride and contracts, but one that has offered an inkling of resistance in three recent weeks.
In the last two games of the campaign, both Wellington’s players as well as interim boss Chris Greenacre will have points to prove to the club’s hierarchy.
Key Battle – Leroy George vs Scott Galloway
Young gun Galloway is among the catalogue of Nix players coming off contract at the end of the 2017-18 season, and he has two games left to either prove he is worth another contract, or shore that up if indeed his spot is safe.
He faces arguably the toughest test in the A-League, closing down Victory’s Dutch star Leroy George. He was invisible against Ulsan but will be eager to bounce back in the best way possible.
George and normal wing partner Kosta Barbarouses routinely swap wings mid-game, and particularly with the latter’s absence, the Dutchman could find himself shifting to the right more frequently.
That will make life hard for Galloway against his former side, but Ulsan showed just how much Victory can be slowed if George’s influence is nullified.
Victory have included a quartet of youngsters in their matchday squad, naming Kenny Athiu, Josh Hope, Cameron McGilp and Pierce Waring. Muscat must make at least two changes to his starting XI with both Rhys Williams and Barbarouses suspended. That will see Thomas Deng move into a central role, while the door is open for Christian Theoharous further forward. After a short turnaround from their unsuccessful venture into Asia, the fresh midfield pair of Matias Sanchez and Terry Antonis could deputise for Carl Valeri or James Troisi.
Melbourne Victory Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Thomas (GK); Nigro, Deng, Donachie, Broxham; Sanchez, Antonis; George, Troisi, Theoharous; Berisha.
The Nix meanwhile have added Marco Rossi and Alex Rufer to an extended squad as a host of players look to step up their chase for contracts beyond the end of the current season.
Wellington Phoenix Expected XI (4-4-2): Sail (GK); Galloway, Durante, Fox, Doyle; Paracki, Ridenton, Ljujic, Burns; Kaluderovic, Krishna.
Victory are streets ahead of the Nix in the ledger, boasting 18 wins to eight. There have been an additional six draws in 32 meetings.
Wellington have won just twice against Victory in Melbourne since their inception in 2008.
Wellington brought up one of their only four wins of the campaign against Victory at Westpac Stadium back in Round 15. They came from 1-0 down against 10-man Victory to clinch a 2-1 win.
Victory are undermanned and likely to be weary after the journey back from Korea, so there is something of a window of opportunity for the Nix to cause a boilover. The hosts’ pride will be dinted after a failed and ultimately embarrassing venture into Asia, but domestically there is plenty at stake and Victory should feel driving to make up the ground on City, who sit within arm’s length on the table.
Melbourne Victory 3 Wellington Phoenix 1