‘Hell of a job’: How Phoenix pulled off gutsy win with 5 big outs & captain’s warm-up injury 

Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano has provided a fascinating insight into the tactical tweaks made to cope with a last-minute injury to captain Alex Rufer before his side’s 2-1 win over Macarthur FC on Sunday night.

The league-leaders came into Round 17 without four first team players and Rufer’s injury made that five in the minutes shortly before kick-off. Rufer was named in the starting XI but was withdrawn with what Italiano confirmed post-game was a quad contusion.

He joined Bozhidar Kraev, Sam Sutton, Nicholas Pennington and Tim Payne as one of five key members of Italiano’s squad that missed the road clash with Macarthur.

But Italiano had drawn up a formation change to cope with the absentees, and his injury-hit squad rose to the challenge as a hard-fought win, settled by two goals to Kosta Barbarouses, kept Wellington’s five-point lead at the top of the table intact.

“I spend a majority of my time making sure we have a plan B, plan C, plan D and I do that because we have such a versatile group,” Italiano told Paramount+ post-game. “We also have a young group, and I feel as though sometimes the attributes of the players dictate the tactics.

“Because we’ve had injuries and player movements and so on, I felt as though most of the pre-season was spent making sure the players were flexible in their approach, so it makes it easier in these games.

“We played a back three, we went one (number) six, we had another six stepping in to try and get their sixes narrow so (there was) more space for our wide players – and it worked.

“Other times, we don’t do that at all – and that comes down to training and the capacity of the group wanting to learn more and be better than what they were the week before.

“At the moment, we’ll see. I’ll find out once we get back to the hotel. He’s got a contusion in his quad, so they can play out either to be significant or just a minor knock, and a couple of days of a bit of love, and he’ll be right.”

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Italiano gave a first Isuzu UTE A-League start to academy product Fin Conchie on Sunday, with 19-year-old Isaac Hughes slotting into defence in a new-look Phoenix lineup.

But with all the big omissions in Wellington’s squad came the timely arrival of Costa Rica international Youstin Salas into the fray for his club debut off the bench.

Italiano expanded on Rufer’s injury in the post-match press conference, revealing the initial plan was to get his captain through the first half before the decision was made not to risk him against Macarthur.

“He had a bit of a contusion during the week, and I think he underplayed it a little bit, then he felt it in the warm-up” Italiano said.

“The conversation before the game was he wanted to play 45. He thought he could get 45, and I simply said he’s too big of a player to put at risk because, looking long-term more than anything, as much as he would have been important today he’s a massive player for us.

“We couldn’t risk him, and he acknowledged that.”

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Oskar Zawada returned from injury off the bench but Barbarouses was once again the leader of Wellington’s attacking output, taking his tally to 10 for the season with another brace – his second at Campbelltown Stadium against Macarthur of the season.

Post-game, Barbarouses lauded Italiano for his flexible approach to tactics and the demands he places on his squad to be both mentally and physically capable of adapting to playing in different shapes.

“His mind is non-stop on football,” Barbarouses told Paramount+.

“We had Alex our captain pull out in the warm-up, there was a formation change… (Italiano) comes up with some great ideas, the boys take it all on board and look, it’s working at the moment.

“We had to grit out teeth at times tonight- but that was part of the game plan, and the boys did a hell of a job.”