Phil Dando previews Round 12 of the A-League including the Jets' blockbuster clash with Sydney FC at Hunter Stadium on Saturday.
Only eleven games down and sixteen to go, and the impressive Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United have cleared out from the rest. With an eight point buffer between second and third, it would appear that the other eight teams are now just left to scrap it out for the remaining four play-off places. Other than the top two, no-one has gone on a run to suggest that they may be a serious championship hope.
Round 12 kicks off on Friday, again with a double-header. First up, Western Sydney Wanderers entertain Adelaide United at parramatta Stadium. Wanderers coach, Tony Popovic, has done a marvellous job with the new-boys of the competition and they completely dominated their cross-town rivals in the Sydney derby last week. They move the ball quickly, and are constantly on the move looking for the next pass. Marquee signing, Shinji Ono, is starting to come into his own now and has a handy knack of finding space in which to receive the ball and then move it on to the next player. They can now be considered as serious challengers, having won their last two. John Kosmina's Reds have won four of their last five and have scored seven in the last two games. They are well organised, and that, harnessed with some serious South American flair from Carrusca, Cassio, Ferreira and Neumann makes them difficult to beat. I'm tipping a draw for this one.
The second game on Friday night is at Brisbane where a Roar side who seem to have lost their hunger and appetite for the game face a Perth Glory team who returned to winning ways last week with an emphatic 3-0 defeat of the Jets. The big news from the Roar camp is that Rado Vidosic has been moved from first team coach to technical director and Mike Mulvey has been appointed to do the job of day-to-day coaching. Sacked, moved upstairs? You decide, but Brisbane is obviously not a happy camp at the moment and they needed to do something to try and re-discover their mojo! Making matters worse for them, star striker Besart Berisha could miss this one through injury. However, as the saying goes, "Form is temporary, class is permanent" and the coaching re-shuffle could be just what the Roar needed. They won't have it all their own way against a Glory team who are nothing if not competitive, but I think it's time for the Roar to hit their straps and I can see them winning this one.
The remaining three games are all on Saturday with the first being in Wellington where the Phoenix receive the Mariners for the second time this season. The Mariners proved their credentials just seven weeks ago when they travelled to the Kiwi capital and beat the Phoenix 1-0. Phoenix will be without their best player, Paul Ifill, for the next four to six weeks as he enters hospital to have an ankle injury that has been troubling him for a number of weeks cleaned up. The fact that the Mariners have won their last four games (and the last six they've played against the Phoenix) and the Phoenix have lost their last two, should indicate that this is a Mariners banker. But, Wellington is a difficult place to get a result and Phoenix will be desperate to get back on track for a third successive semi-finals spot, so I'm going to tip a draw.
Next game up is the Jets at home to Sydney FC. Two teams doing it tough at the moment, with the Jets having garnered only one point from the last fifteen available, while Sydney FC have won only one of their last seven games. They are also the two worst defences in the competition, the Jets having conceded 22 while Sydney have conceded 25! Even more troubling for the Jets is the fact they haven't scored a goal in the last three after looking like they were going to be fairly prolific in the early stages of the season. They are still managing to hold onto a top six spot because of their good early season form, though. How does one predict this game? For me, the Jets have to decide on a best eleven, stick with it and scrap for every point until they can play the way they want to. At the moment they are betwixt and between, neither a passing team nor one that plays direct up to Heskey. They haven't been helped by being without key midfielders, Jobe Wheelhouse and Ben Kantarovski in recent weeks, either. Sydney FC looked awful without Del Piero against the Wanderers last weekend, barely creating a chance on goal and there's no guarantee he'll be fit for this game. If the Jets can get the ball out wide for Goodwin and Virgili and they can get some decent crosses in for Heskey, I think the time is right for the Jets to get back to some sort of form with what should be a big crowd behind them. That may just be enough to get them over the line here.
The round finishes on Saturday night with the Melbourne derby, the Victory third top and the Heart third bottom. As always, derbies are tough to predict, but these two are so inconsistent that it's nigh on impossible! The Heart-s high-octane counter-attacking game plan worked well in round one when they beat Ange Postecoglou-s men 2-1, but the Victory are a better side now that they are accustomed to the coach's style of play. The Heart will have their work cut out keeping tabs on Rojas, Thompson and Flores and don't have much of a cutting edge themselves. Victory have only won the Melbourne derby once, but have come away with a point on four of the seven occasions these two teams have met. I'm tipping them to bag all three points this weekend.
Don't forget, you can listen to Phil and Aaron Kearney's commentary of the Jets v Sydney FC game on 1233 ABC Radio Newcastle live from 5 p.m. on Saturday.