THEY might be last on the A-League points table, but Ernie Merrick won’t be underestimating his former club, Wellington Phoenix, in Saturday’s showdown at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Indeed, Newcastle’s coach believes Wellington can still qualify for the A-League finals, despite trailing the top six by eight points with 12 games to play.
Phoenix have only two wins for the season, but the recent signings of Serbian midfielder Matija Ljujic and former Socceroo Nathan Burns have sparked a mini-revival, as evidenced by a 2-1 upset against Melbourne Victory, followed by a 1-all draw with Western Sydney.
“They’re a good team and I’m pretty sure they can finish in the finals,” Merrick said.
“I think they can do it. Look, we’ve only gone just over halfway [into the season], and I think the Phoenix can get in the finals.”
Newcastle beat Wellington 3-0 at McDonald Jones Stadium in round five but Merrick is anticipating a far closer tussle on Saturday.
“Phoenix are going to be a very tough team, now that they’ve signed Nathan Burns,” he said.
“They’ve brought in Ljujic in the middle, they’re all playing together a lot better, and [Roy] Krishna’s firing up front as well.
“So there’s no easy games. It’s going to be a really tough one, completely different from the first match we played them in.”
Newcastle are flying high in second spot, seven points ahead of third-placed Melbourne City and a remarkable 22 points ahead of Wellington.
They will be chasing a third consecutive win on home turf and Merrick said he was not worried if it was by a convincing margin or a tight affair.
“I’m happy always to win by one goal, whether it’s 1-0 or 4-3,” Merrick said.
“One goal is enough for me. It’s still three points.”
Merrick, who coached Wellington for 90 games between 2013 and 2016, is well aware of the challenge the Phoenix face commuting across the Tasman for half their games.
“I know that when I was coaching the Phoenix, I found it very difficult to travel so much,” he said.
“Because the more you travel, the less you train, and the more you’re trying to recover not only from the game, but from the travel … there’s no doubt the travel does affect them.”
After Sydney’s 1-all draw with Adelaide last weekend, Newcastle moved to within six points of the competition leaders. They host Sydney in round 22, raising the possibility of a belated and unexpected battle for the minor premiership.
“I try not to worry about catching any particular team or being the top team,” Merrick said. “In my first year [at Newcastle], and the first year of quite a few of the players, they want to finish in the top four and we’ve kept that as a goal.”
“I haven’t put them under any more pressure than that, and given the players we’ve got out and the youngsters we’ve got in, a top-four target still seems to be possible.”