Mariners' travel woes give Phoenix ALM title race edge

Ben McKay and George ClarkeAAP
Phoenix coach Giancarlo Italiano hopes travel can be a decisive factor for his club. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)
Camera IconPhoenix coach Giancarlo Italiano hopes travel can be a decisive factor for his club. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

Central Coast's charge towards the A-League Men (ALM) title has been hit with a curveball after their fixture with Adelaide United was postponed due to the Mariners' squad being stranded in Kyrgyzstan.

And the setback could hand an unlikely boost to Wellington's hopes of finishing top of the pile.

The Mariners earned a 1-1 draw in the central Asian nation on Wednesday night in the first leg of their AFC Cup inter-zonal final against Abdysh-Ata Kant.

The ALM league leaders were set to race back to Gosford to continue their charge to the premiership against Adelaide on Sunday.

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However wild weather in the Middle East, which brought flash flooding at airports, scotched the Mariners' return to Australia with the A-Leagues postponing the clash.

Central Coast are likely to play the game in the first week of the finals series, given they will have a week off and Adelaide cannot make the top six.

On Thursday the club was still trying to work out how to get its touring squad out of Bishkek.

While it's a tough spot for the Mariners, it's a stroke of fortune for title rivals Wellington, who, ironically, are the club usually most disadvantaged by travel requirements.

The Phoenix - forced to make more than a dozen trans-Tasman trips each year - are up the F3 Motorway from their title rivals this weekend, facing Newcastle on Friday night.

Earlier on Thursday, by chance, coach Giancarlo Italiano talked up the benefits of travelling to the Hunter a day early for their preparations.

"Coming to Newcastle, it's three hours with the normal (flight) and then three hours on the bus," Italiano said.

"If we did that on (match day) minus one, you can carry some of that into the game, but we're here on minus two, which gives us an extra day to recover.

"Those little differences, those little factors make a big difference."

Central Coast and Wellington are the only two sides left in the battle for the premiership, and enter the penultimate round locked on 49 points, with the Mariners ahead on both wins and goal difference.

Another dimension in the premiership race is that both title-chasers have fixtures in the Hunter, giving the Jets a big say in the destination of the premier's plate.

Newcastle are embroiled in financial concerns, with serious doubts over their inclusion in the league next season, but are on their best run of the campaign, drawing with Melbourne City and beating Sydney FC and Brisbane.

"There's so many scenarios that can play out now," Italiano said, noting the Jets were the only side to beat them in New Zealand this season.

"I don't want to go there and absolutely touch them up, and ruin their confidence for next week.

"Even when we played them last time here, it was a last-minute winner.

"Their tails are up. I respect them a lot.

"What matters is if we can get the result, play well, and then we allow the football gods to dictate what happens."

The Phoenix have been bolstered by the availability of star striker Oskar Zawada, who is in line for a bench role on Friday night, with Italiano hoping to improve his conditioning before finals.

"He's been very frustrated that he's had these injuries," the coach said.

"One of the big things he wanted to do this year was create a bit of a legacy within the club, and I think he's still in a position to achieve that."


CENTRAL COAST MARINERS (first place - 49 points, 15 wins, +18 goal difference)

Wednesday April 17: 1-1 draw with Abdysh-Ata Kant in Kyrgyzstan in the AFC Cup Inter-Zonal Finals first leg

Sunday April 21: Adelaide United (H) - postponed to be re-arranged

Wednesday April 24: Abdysh-Ata Kant (H) in the AFC Cup Inter-Zonal Finals second leg

Saturday April 27: Newcastle Jets (A)

WELLINGTON PHOENIX (second place - 49 points, 14 wins, +13 goal difference)

Friday April 19: Newcastle Jets (A)

Saturday April 27: Macarthur FC (H)

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