It might have been billed as a match-up between David and Goliath, but Western Sydney Wanderers are all too aware the visit of the bottom-placed Wellington Phoenix could be the banana skin that denies them the Premier's Plate.
The Wanderers will start their first game as the A-League leaders against the competition's cellar dwellers, and coach Tony Popovic is refusing to let his players relax their approach in the hunt for the minor premiership. Despite clinching top spot against the Mariners last week, Popovic has put his players through a more rigorous training program throughout the week to maintain their stellar form at the expense of the team propping up the table.
''Nothing's different, the boss isn't allowing us to get ahead of ourselves and he's definitely keeping us grounded with the sessions he's put on this week,'' captain Michael Beauchamp said. ''He had a talk to us straight after the game [against the Mariners last Saturday]. Obviously [he said] to enjoy the win but it can go away as quickly as it can come, and that's what we're focused on.''
The Wanderers have refrained from changing their preparations since embarking on their run of eight successive wins but are wary of the Phoenix after interim coach Chris Greenacre took over last week. Wellington showed signs of a revival against Melbourne Heart in their last game as they clinched a 1-0 win under the guidance of Greenacre. The Wanderers are conscious of the effect a new coach can have on a struggling team after being made to work hard for three points against Alistair Edward's Perth Glory a fortnight ago. As such, they anticipate Wellington will perform to a standard much higher than their league position would suggest.
''We had a similar situation with Perth where they changed their manager and had a very good win at home, and we had a tough match against Perth and we expect the same again,'' Popovic said. ''They will have some more confidence now, some more belief, but they're up against a team with belief in the Wanderers. We've spoke about it with the staff about how these games can be difficult when managers change.''
In a sign of their focus before Sunday's match, Popovic's pre-training meeting with his squad on Friday morning lasted nearly 30 minutes longer than scheduled. Despite the lengthy discussions, he said it had been easy to maintain the motivation throughout the squad as the players were showing just as much ambition as the coaching staff.
''I think with the players, it's been quite easy as they're the ones that are driving what we do as well because they're mentality has been very good,'' Popovic said. ''They've looked very focused in training, and there's no need to talk about 'ifs' and 'buts' to a group of players that are so focused, that are working hard at their training.
''Nothing's changed in terms from the start when we weren't getting the results we wanted or how we prepare now. I'm sure the players will tell you the same - we haven't changed anything in our approach or how we prepare.''