Mariners host Phoenix in likely ALM premiership decider

If Wellington can't win their table-topping A-League Men clash with Central Coast, they sure as hell can't lose it.

That's the message from Giancarlo Italiano as his high-flying Phoenix head to Gosford for the match of the season on Saturday night.

The first-placed Nix have a three-point buffer over the next-best Mariners with four matches left.

Given Wellington are as close as they've ever been to a trophy in their 17-year history, there must surely be a temptation to go for broke and double their lead to six points with three games left.

Not so for the safety-first Australian, who is in his first season as an A-League coach but leading the pack with a pragmatic brand of football.

"The mentality for every away game is that we consolidate a result and we're a little bit more cautious away from home," Italiano said.

"We respect the fact that we have to travel and we also respect the home team, especially someone like the Mariners, who have a good fan base and a good following."

Central Coast were well beaten last weekend by Sydney FC but recovered their mojo with a midweek 2-1 win over Melbourne City, furthering hopes of backing up last year's title with the Premiers Plate.

Wellington have wins over Sydney and Brisbane in their past two outings, but laboured to a 0-0 draw in their last clash with Central Coast, at Sky Stadium in February.

It's high-stakes stuff, but Italiano is not building up the clash, instead reminding his players to use the street smarts that have led to the Phoenix's biggest points haul in club history.

"I don't give a context where we're going in and it's one versus two and our season is on the line," he said.

"There are some days that we play absolutely crap with the ball, but I say to them, 'at least defend well and then that will solve half the problems' and they do it.

"When it works well with the ball, sometimes defensively we might be a little bit off, so we take into account all those and we try to stick to our values, stick to our playing model, and that's what works."

Phoenix captain Alex Rufer
Phoenix captain Alex Rufer walks from the field after being sent off against the Brisbane Roar.

Key striker Oskar Zawada (leg) remains out, while club captain Alex Rufer will also miss the occasion after a red card in last week's 1-0 win over Brisbane.

Italiano said when the match review panel offered a one-week ban, rather than the expected two, the club decided against appealing.

Heart-and-soul utility Tim Payne is travelling after overcoming a hamstring issue ahead of time, and will come off the bench.

"It's a little bit quicker than expected, which has been fantastic news for us and for the team, and important given the fact that we're a bit short because of Ruf's suspension," Italiano said.

The coach said Ben Old was a likely starter, backing Nicholas Pennington and Mohamed Al-Taay, or perhaps even mid-season signing Youstin Salas, to fill the Rufer-sized hole in their midfield.

For Central Coast, red-hot Josh Nisbet will play his 100th match after two goals and two assists in his past four games.

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