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Wellington sell-out as Nix chase first ALM final spot

3 minute read

Rugby-mad New Zealand has gone all-in on the Wellington Phoenix, with over 30,000 supporters selling out their home semi-final against Melbourne Victory.

The largest crowd of any A-League match anywhere this season will roar Wellington on at Sky Stadium for the Phoenix's biggest match in club history.

The Nix are one win away from a maiden grand final, and will be backed to get there by more than 30,000 Kiwis against Melbourne Victory on Saturday night.

The return leg of the semi-final - Wellington's first home final for nine years - resumes at 0-0 after Sunday's deadlock at AAMI Park.

The sold-out 'caketin' is a welcome boost for Giancarlo Italiano's side, as the league's least successful club tackles one of its heavyweights.

Italiano said it could be "the decisive factor" and "it's going to give us an advantage, especially when those moments get tough".

The Phoenix, without any silverware in their 17 years, were written off in pre-season.

The club lost well-regarded coach Ufuk Talay as well as eight senior players with just two coming in - unheralded Newcastle Jets pair Jack Duncan, a reserve goalkeeper, and utility Mohamed Al-Taay.

On Talay's recommendation, club bosses gave a chance to Italiano - a respected assistant but untested at senior level.

Italiano spoke candidly this season about his struggle with imposter syndrome, given his lack of senior playing or coaching.

"I needed to be convinced I was ready to do it because I was not really sure," he told AAP.

"When I actually got the job, even then I was like 'gee what have I got myself into here?'

"We had no money, they wanted to go down a young (player) route ... in the back of my mind was 'if I take this job, I need to evolve the team as well'. I had a lot of challenges.

"I don't think I even got comfortable probably until maybe a couple of weeks ago and happy with the way things were going."

Italiano's first goals for himself were to avoid embarrassment.

"I say this tongue in cheek but my first goal was to get five wins to beat Wellington's worst season," he said.

"Then 25 points was more realistic. And then, if we could get close to top eight I was happy.

"We just kept hitting targets."

The next goal was 46 points, to match the club's best-ever points haul, set between players and Italiano after a rousing last-minute win over Newcastle Jets in January.

A safety-first counter-attacking style on the road and a more expansive game plan at home landed the Nix on a record 53 points.

"We never spoke about winning the competition. It was just on getting these targets," he said.

"When they got to the halfway point of the year, they really wanted top four and a home final."

Now that moment has arrived with Wellington enjoying the benefit of a fully-available squad, though towering striker Oskar Zawada is unlikely to start as he builds back from a leg injury.

Victory will be without playmaker Zinedine Machach, who is still suspended after a red card in the club's mighty elimination-final win over Melbourne City.

It took penalties for Victory to win through to the last four, with the same method to be deployed on Saturday night should the scores remain tied after extra-time, with the away goals rule not in effect.

The final grand-final place, and hosting rights, will be confirmed later on Saturday when Central Coast host Sydney FC in the second semi-final.

The Mariners take a 2-1 lead to Gosford and, as premiers, will host the decider should they win through. Otherwise, the other semi-final winner will stage the grand final in their city.

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