THE STAKES are getting higher for Wellington Phoenix as the business end of the A-League season gets into full swing.
With just eight games remaining, including away fixtures against Central Coast Mariners, Brisbane Roar, Adelaide United and Sydney, Phoenix skipper Andrew Durante admits the pressure is on to make the finals series for the second successive season.
With the top four all but guaranteed a finals berth, the battle is on between the two Melbourne teams, Wellington and Newcastle for the remaining two spots.
Victory, who play Phoenix in Wellington on Wednesday night, and Heart are in the driving seat in fifth and sixth respectively after recent wins.
Newcastle's loss to Sydney on Monday night has afforded Wellington some breathing space – but only if they pick up the points at Westpac Stadium in what will be coach Ricki Herbert's 100th A-League game.
"It's a big game for us," said the Phoenix captain. "Both Melbourne teams winning their last games have really put the pressure on us."
"We're back at home and we know what's riding on this. There's not many games left in the season and we are desperate to be in these semi-finals.
"It's almost a must-win for us. We've really got to go out there and take it to them. Our last result at home (4-0 win against the Jets) was fantastic and we're going to try and replicate that."
After his start from the bench in the 1-1 draw with North Queensland Fury, Durante will return to central defence in place of Jade North, who is on Asian Cup duty with Australia.
Phoenix should also welcome back Tony Lochhead to the leftback role after three months out recovering from groin surgery.
"He's worked extremely hard getting back from his injury and he's got back in pretty good time as well," Durante said.
"He's going to give us the balance on that left-hand side that we've been lacking over the last few months."
Lochhead's return allows Manny Muscat to shift to his preferred position just in front of the back four where he will have the job of trying to contain last year's player of the year, Carlos Hernandez.
"He's a key man," said former Victory midfielder Nick Ward. "If you leave him spare and he gets found he will turn and hurt you.
"But I think Manny has done a good job on him in the past so I'll be hoping he does the same thing and keep him quiet then the likes of Danny Allsopp don't get the service."
Ward, who returned from a knee injury to set up Dylan Macallister's equaliser against North Queensland Fury, is expected to start out wide in place of Leo Bertos, who is struggling with a groin problem.
"You always want to play good against your old team. I've got a lot of really good mates there. It will be a good game to play in," the 25-year-old said.
"I used to play out wide for Victory. I'm pretty comfortable there. I like playing in the middle and being involved but being further out wide there are a few more chances to get into the box and create things and I enjoy it."
And the key to defeating Victory, who will be without strikers Archie Thompson (injured) and Robbie Kruse (Asian Cup duty)?
"Probably for us, getting down the flanks against them and getting good service into the box for our strikers," said Ward.
"That's where we seem to hurt teams. We've got late runs from Tim Brown, he's been on fire. And Macca (Dylan Macallister) as well. We have got to give the service to them."