Phil Dando from 1233 ABC Newcastle previews Round 18 of the A-League, including the Jets' trip to Wellington.
The round kicks off on Friday night with a blockbuster as the two most consistent teams in table-topping Central Coast Mariners and second-placed Adelaide United square off in Gosford. The Mariners have just hit a little speed hump in recent weeks and their performances have dipped slightly with two successive draws, while the Reds are coming off an unimpressive 2-0 defeat at Melbourne Heart.
The Mariners welcome back striker Bernie Ibini from trials in Belgium and have added Nick Fitzgerald from Brisbane Roar to their roster to replace the Celtic-bound Tom Rogic, who will be watching from the stand. Defender Nigel Boogaard is available for selection for the Reds after a hamstring injury, while Marcelo Carrusca could be an outside chance of being selected after recovering from injury. Striker Bruce Djite is likely to be another week from returning. Adelaide rarely do well here, winning only once in nine attempts and I think the Mariners will be ready for this one and keen to hold onto top spot. It's the Mariners for me.
There are three games on Australia Day Saturday, starting with the "big blue" in Melbourne between the Victory and Sydney FC. Six of the last nine games between these teams have been drawn and with the Sky Blues amazing return to form with their 7-1 thrashing of Wellington Phoenix last week they are sure to give Thompson, Rojas, Flores and co a tough time. They exuded quality last week, but the question has to be asked, how does a team manage to have four "marquee" players? If Joel Griffiths, Jason Culina, Brett Emerton and Alessandro Del Piero are all on song they can beat anyone and Joel's brother Adam is fit again after a knee injury to strengthen the defence. The Victory got a good result last week too, grinding out a 1-0 win in Perth - no easy task, that. Victory haven't lost at home since the opening day of the season plus there will be a sell-out crowd at AAMI Park to see this one and I think that the home team will just get over the line here.
Western Sydney Wanderers will be looking to keep their impressive run of form going when they entertain Melbourne Heart in the second game on Saturday. The Heart, however, have won three of the last four including last week's fine 2-0 defeat of second-placed Adelaide United, but haven't yet won outside of Melbourne this season. The Japanese international, Shinji Ono, has certainly improved throughout the season, and has contributed enormously to the Wanderers' rise into the top four with four goals and three assists from 16 matches. 20 year old striker, Eli Babalj has returned to Melbourne Heart from Red Star Belgrade for the remainder of this season and 2013-14, and should his international clearance be processed in time will link up with teammates for this clash. The Wanderers recent good run of form and the large, passionate following they have cheering them on are good enough reasons for me to tip them to win this one.
Finally on Saturday, Perth Glory host the stuttering two-time champions, Brisbane Roar. What to make of the Roar, who let all their supporters and backers down again last week and come into this one on the back of three successive losses? Mind you, Perth Glory are in a tail-spin too, with no wins in their last five, three of which were lost, but their last win was against the Roar in Brisbane! Defender Jade North is likely to make his debut for the Roar to tighten up an unusually lax defence. Will it be enough turn their season around? I don't think so, and I'm tipping Perth to win the desperation stakes!
Sunday's only game and the final one of the round is another one that's hard to predict. Wellington Phoenix, coming off a 7-1 defeat in Sydney last week, welcome Newcastle Jets who have only won once in Wellington in nine attempts! Phoenix have won nine of the last ten matches against the Jets, including the last 6, and in their last ten games against Wellington, the Jets have conceded 23 goals while scoring only 4.
Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert has added to his attacking midfield options by signing Australian under-23 international Isaka Cernak from Melbourne Victory, while the Jets have been active in the transfer window too, signing midfielder Zenon Caravella from Adelaide United. Caravella may get a run with Ruben Zadkovich out suspended. Jets defender Josh Mitchell is also suspended, but they have Taylor Regan back from injury to slot into Mitchell's central defensive role. Herbert has described his team-s performance in the 7-1 loss to Sydney FC on Saturday as “totally unacceptable”, while the Jets coach, Gary van Egmond has been pleased with the new-found resilience his team has shown in keeping three successive clean-sheets after going 18 games without one. This is anyone's guess as to which way it's going to go, and I'm chickening out and tipping a draw!