Phil Dando previews Round 11 of the A-League including the Jets' clash with Perth Glory at nib Stadium on Friday night.
With just over a third of the season gone, the top two of Central Coast and Adelaide have cleared out from the rest and look the goods for the finals. For the other eight clubs, however, it's going to be a real scrap for the remaining four finals spots and results this weekend could really shake up the table and cause a crisis of confidence at one or two clubs!
The round kicks off, unusually, with a Friday night double-header. At 7.30 the very impressive table-toppers, Central Coast Mariners entertain Melbourne Heart, and then at 9.45 AEST Perth are at home to Newcastle Jets.
The Mariners avenged their controversial Round 3 loss to the Jets (their only loss of the season to date) with a comprehensive 2-0 win at Hunter Stadium. They welcome back Socceroos Tomas Rogic and goalkeeper Matt Ryan and will be even stronger for it. Reports are that the Mariners are brimming with confidence and have a swagger and a focus about them (which is hardly surprising!) and most importantly, there is no sign of complacency. The Heart welcome back their Socceroo trio and will feel a little better after Golgol Mehbrahtu scored late to give them their first win in four games last week. Mariners striker, Daniel McBreen, will be feeling even better though after notching a double against the Jets to take his total to nine in the nine games he's played to be leading scorer. You've got to admire the way the Mariners are playing right now and I can't see them not taking maximum points here.
While it may not be panic stations for Perth Glory or Newcastle Jets just yet, neither team will be wanting to drop points in this fixture. The Glory are winless in five games, picking up only two points out of the fifteen on offer, while the Jets haven't triumphed in four, securing just a solitary point from the twelve available. If results go the wrong way, either of these two could be rock-bottom by the end of the weekend! Jets coach Gary van Egmond has wielded the axe after last week's demoralising defeat by the Mariners. Youngsters Mitchell Oxborrow and Andrew Hoole are both in line to potentially make their A-League debuts against the Glory after being added to the travelling squad. The pair has earned a call-up to the first team following their impressive form for the Jets- National Youth League side in recent weeks. Young forward Adam Taggart returns to the squad following a successful campaign with the Socceroos while Josh Mitchell and Ryan Griffiths return from suspension, and Tiago Calvano has recovered from a heel injury. Out go James Brown, Bernardo Ribeiro, Taylor Regan, Jacob Pepper and Michael Bridges. Defensive duo Scott Jamieson and Michael Thwaite return from national team duty for Perth and coach Ian Ferguson has vowed to shake up his team selection too in order to rediscover the winning formula. The Jets have only won one of the eleven games at this venue, and that in the first A-League season and they will have to show a significant form reversal to win this one. However, I do think there is enough skill and character in them to get something, and so I'm tipping a draw!
On Saturday, Ange Postecoglou and his new Melbourne Victory team play host to his old club, Brisbane Roar. Victory are now up to third in the table, but looked far from impressive in their 2-4 mauling in Adelaide last weekend. Roar are not a patch on what they were when Postecoglou was in charge and have lost six out of ten played and are second bottom only on goal difference. Both teams return to full strength after the Socceroos games - Thompson and Milligan are back for Victory and defensive pair Franjic and Smith for Roar, so there can be no excuses for either. I keep saying that I expect Broich, Berisha and Nichols to fire for Brisbane but it isn't happening yet. Could this be the week? They must at some time, but it will be hard away at a full-strength Victory, so I'm going to tip this one as a draw as well.
The second game on Saturday night is the second Sydney derby at Allianz Stadium. Who would have expected the new boys, the Wanderers to be in fourth while the "bling" team sit on the bottom, already onto their second coach for the season? This one pits the league's lowest scorers against the worst defence in the comp! However, new coach, Frank Farina, has tightened up Sydney FC's defence and they were good value for their win in Wellington - never an easy place to get a result - last week. Sydney FC marquee Alessandro Del Piero is a “big chance” to play after a hamstring injury which forced him to miss last week isn't as bad as first feared, and with Jason Culina working his way back to fitness and Brett Emerton returning from Socceroos duty, Farina's squad is starting to look pretty good. Results should surely follow. Amazingly, WSW lead the stats count for the most shots at goal, but are failing to convert them. A late penalty (and a first goal for marquee player Shinji Ono) gave them a win they scarcely deserved against Brisbane Roar last week and although derbies are notoriously difficult to predict, I think a now full-strength and confident Sydney FC will take the points.
The round concludes on Sunday as the competition's second-best team, and quite possibly the only challengers to Central Coast's bid for the title, Adelaide United host Wellington Phoenix. Goalkeeper and captain, Eugene Galekovic, returns to the Reds line up for whom the imports Fabio Ferreira, Marcelo Carrusca and Jeronimo Neumann have been most impressive. Phoenix always find it hard to get a result in Adelaide, but will be desperate to return to winning ways after a surprise home loss to Sydney FC last week. Phoenix coach, Ricki Herbert, has hinted at changes in his squad as a result, and looks likely to give some of his youngsters a chance to prove themselves as he tries to ward off any complacency that may have crept into a squad that has been relatively stable over the last few seasons. The Reds are always difficult to beat on their own patch though, and I expect them to continue on their winning ways this weekend.