God. He still exists and he's lying in wait for the Wellington Phoenix. But before that, the Phoenix have other problems.....but not to worry, they'll still make the play-off's. Your NZ update from Fernando Battaglia.
Three matches into a season hardly constitutes a "crisis" (unless, you're West Ham United and you've lost those three matches by a combined 9-1). In the A-League however, even the Hammers' chances of a playoff spot would be very much alive.
In an 11-team league where six teams make the playoffs, chances are you're in, even if you are in "crisis". The Wellington Phoenix consider themselves title contenders (again, who isn't in this league?) so 4 points from three matches has a few people concerned. Lots of discussions are being heard, and column inches being written, about the need to be "mentally tough" and "finish off games" and "win even when we play badly". Blah, blah, blah.
If I were the Phoenix, I'd be much more concerned about another deeply disturbing trend; your own countrymen scoring against you.
That's right, the greatest threat to Phoenix goalkeepers this season are New Zealanders. Three of the four goals scored against them are by New Zealanders and former Phoenix players. In this case, Gold Coast's Shane Smeltz (2) and Brisbane Roar's Kosta Barbarouses, who scored a late winner against Wellington this past weekend.
They may not be the only ‘Kiwi’ threat to Phoenix. Jeremy Brockie is at Newcastle Jets and pseudo-Kiwi Michael McGlinchey at Central Coast, two other players who will feel they need to prove something to the All Whites' manager in games against Phoenix. Why? He just happens to be the Phoenix's manager: Ricki Herbert.
What better way to say "you should be playing me" than to score against your own manager?
On the other hand, I suppose it is indicative of a growing quality of Kiwi footballers, that they can find room in A-League rosters and elsewhere. And with the season barely started (and more than 50 per cent of the teams in the league making the playoffs) there's plenty of time to turn it around. There's even time to get in a deeper hole and still qualify.
HOW MANY WAYS CAN YOU WIN BEFORE YOU WIN?
One could easily argue that a small league in which each team plays thirty matches and more than half qualify for the playoffs is one that is replete with meaningless matches. Sure, the playoffs make up for it a bit because there's a more than good chance that your team will make it and play at least one very significant game. But all I can see are those early August and late January matches where the biggest concern for more coaches is building depth and keeping anyone from getting hurt.
I've always preferred the single league table format to any type of playoffs in football. I know that the Australians are trying very much to appeal to a customer base that is used to playoff systems (in sports such as the AFL, NRL and Super Rugby), but I think appealing to fans is much more than ensuring each teams wins "something". It's akin to getting a medal just for participating.
Granted, playing a single league format might make for even more meaningless games come January, if one team gets far enough ahead, especially with only two qualifying spots available for the Asian Champions League. But more often than not, it's a close race. Last season would have come down to the last weekend as Sydney FC pipped Melbourne Victory 48 points to 47. The year before that would have been even closer as Melbourne and Adelaide United finished even on points. In fact, only in 2005-06 and 2006-07, the league's first two seasons, was the margin greater than one point.
There is also a case to be made that the playoffs may be pointless. Three out of the A-League's five seasons have resulted in the League Premiers (top of the table after the regular season) also being the League Champions.
From the Phoenix's point-of-view, however, only a league title will do this season after finishing third last year, especially since they can't qualify for the Asian Champions League due to the fact that they are not, technically speaking in a football sense, "Asian" but rather part of Oceania, whereas Australia has actually joined the Asian Football Confederation.
MORE FREQUENT FLYER MILES THAN ANYONE IN THE LEAGUE
Next up for the Phoenix in their plucky title-challenge; Perth Glory, where we will get to find out what happened to the carcass of Robbie Fowler (answer: he's scoring and surprisingly healthy) and also whether the Phoenix can cope with the longest away travel in the league (8 hours!) to spring a surprise win. Even if they can't, remember, it's a long, meaningless season and "crisis" is probably a bit of an overreaction.
Fernando will continue to provide first class updates from New Zealand for IBWM, but if you’d like to read more from him, please visit his blog.