Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick’s improvisation skills are being stretched to the limit as he looks for three more wins and a spot in the A-League play-offs.
Hit hard in recent weeks by injury and suspension, eighth-placed Wellington desperately need a win on Saturday at Hunter Stadium against the Newcastle Jets, who sit one place and one point above them on the ladder.
Merrick remains confident of securing a top-six spot, although he admits his rapidly diminishing squad have made life challenging in recent weeks.
“Out of last week’s starting 11, there were only five players that completed pre-season which shows you how much we’ve had to improvise,” he said.
A long injury list is largely to blame, with star striker Carlos Hernandez the latest addition in joining Paul Ifill, Louis Fenton, Reece Caira, Albert Riera, Leo Bertos and Josh Brindell-South.
Central defender Ben Sigmund will also miss the Newcastle game, serving out a one-match suspension after receiving two yellow cards in last week’s eventful 2-2 draw with Melbourne Heart.
Luke Adams comes into the match-day squad for Sigmund, and Merrick is unlikely to tinker with his starting 11 too much, although he does have options with Manny Muscat either slotting into the back four or filling a defensive midfield role.
Wellington’s next three games are against the teams immediately above them on the ladder – Newcastle, Adelaide United and Sydney FC, with their final match against second-placed Melbourne Victory.
Merrick says his team’s focus will be on process, rather than worrying about the all-important victory.
“It’s not about must-win games, it’s that we must play individually and collectively, our best football. The outcome looks after itself.”
Wellington downed the Jets 3-2 in round 16 to move into the top six, and Merrick is expecting a tough challenge again, particularly with Emile Heskey back to full fitness.
The Jets, who will be starting Ben Kennedy in goal ahead of Mark Birighitti, have the league’s equal top scorer in striker Adam Taggart and an extra boost of midfield experience in Socceroo David Carney.
“I know they’ve had a tough run, but they’re a good team and there’s a lot of ability there,” Merrick said.