‘If I had the answer, I’d be coaching Champions League!’

Hear from Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano ahead of his side's Semi-Final clash with Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park.

Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano says mentality is key to his side withstanding the pressure against an in-form Melbourne Victory and their raucous home crowd in their Semi-Final first leg on Sunday.

Wellington finished second on the Isuzu UTE A-League table this season to progress straight to the Semi-Finals, and elected to host the return leg of the tie; Victory beat local rivals Melbourne City in the Elimination Finals and progressed to face the Phoenix, with leg one set to take place at AAMI Park on Sunday, May 12.


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Speaking at Wellington Airport on Friday afternoon ahead of the trip across the ditch to Melbourne, Italiano was asked to explain how he plans to mitigate mistakes from his side in leg one, having spoken previously on his belief that the team that makes the fewest errors will progress to the Grand Final.

“If I had that answer, I think I’d be coaching (in the) Champions League!” Italiano replied.

“For me, the most important thing is just mentality.

“Mentality is such a broad, cliché word but going into the game understanding the context of the game, being prepared for even the small things: the crowd being against you, the fact you might not have the ball for 20 minutes, the fact that players might be singled out, players will be overloaded, there might be different tactical changes.

“It’s getting the players to understand what’s coming. And if they get prepared for that mentally, then it puts them in a really positive mindset. I think we’ve done that well, the coaching staff and myself, we’ve really worked on that this year – and this week is no different.

“Keeping the players grounded that it’s just this one first game, this one first half, this one second half, and that we keep moving in small steps and focus on the now. I think that will mitigate the mistakes.”


Wellington and Victory met three times in the regular season; the Phoenix won the last meeting 1-0 after two prior 1-1 draws. The first of three games between the two sides was at AAMI Park, where an own goal to Victory defender Damien Da Silva earned Wellington a 1-1 draw in a game that, incredibly, Italiano’s side failed to have a single shot.

“We’re going to go there and try and beat our record for last game, zero shots!,” Italiano quipped when asked to recall that encounter in November.

“I think we beat that the last two games (against them). At home, they’re very hard to break down. I think it will be no different. If you look at the amount of losses, total losses throughout the year, we both have the best record so I think it will be a very good matchup in that sense.”

Wellington lost just four games in the regular season, the least of any team in the league. Victory finished third on the table with five losses on the board.

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How Wellington would handle the AAMI Park atmosphere was a key topic of Italiano’s pre-game address.

“I think atmosphere in football games is what makes football special,” he said, in anticipation of arriving at an AAMI Park pressure cooker.

“I watched Real Madrid and Bayern Munich (Champions League Semi-Final) the other day and I got a buzz watching that, just off the TV. I actually said to my players in the team meeting during the week: ‘That’s going to be us. We’re either going to be Bayern or Real Madrid.’ The fans are going to get you through.

“Now, that could work twofold, right? The fans can get you over the line, but they can also go against you. Especially if you don’t get good home support when things are getting tough. A team like Real Madrid, if things aren’t going well, you can feel it. I saw Manchester United play the other day at home and they were struggling, and the crowd kind of turned against them.

“So it can be a negative- and that’s something we’ll play on. If we feel like the Melbourne crowd feels unsettled, they’re not in the game, we’ll use that to our advantage.”

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Victory, meanwhile, are eager to use their crucial home leg and the advantage of a home crowd to gain the upper hand in the two-legged tie.

In the Elimination Finals, Victory were a goal down and a man down against City but as hosts of the knockout game, head coach Tony Popovic said the atmosphere generate by the fans was a key factor in helping his side claw back to level terms, and eventually win the derby matchup via a penalty shooout.

“We know (Wellington) are a very good team,” Popovic said. “We’ve had three very tough matches against them thus far. We know they’ll come here full of confidence, but they’ll be playing a team that’s also full of confidence, full of belief.

“We want our fans to come out again, they created an amazing atmosphere last week and they really did help us get over the line. Once we had the player (Zinédine Machach) sent off, we needed every ounce of support we could get and they certainly gave us that.

“This week’s important that they come out and support us, which could really effectively be our last home game. We want to make sure we leave AAMI Park in a very good position going to Wellington.”

With Sunday’s Semi-Final taking place on Mother’s Day, Popovic has urged Victory fans to embrace the occasion and incorporate the blockbuster Phoenix clash into their family festivities.

“We should all embrace that and enjoy Mother’s Day, a special person in our lives,” he said.

“But all I can say is enjoy lunch with mum, and come celebrate Mother’s Day by coming here and supporting us once more in creating that wonderful atmosphere we had last week. It can really go a long way towards setting us up, and setting up a good foundation going into Wellington.

“That’s the idea, bring them along to enjoy it and then come and support us, and help us get that first leg important advantage.”