Phil Dando previews Round 23 of the A-League including the Jets' clash with Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park on Sunday.
Round 23 was preceded by one game brought forward from Round 26, with the Jets travelling to Wellington and scoring a rare 2-1 win in the NZ capital. That result has done the Jets top six chances no harm and will give them added confidence for this weekend's trip to Melbourne to face the Victory.
A Saturday triple-header kicks off Round 23. Adelaide United at home to Brisbane Roar is the first game. The Reds still sit in third position after their good start to the season, but they have only won one of their last six games. The Roar, currently in eighth position, are faring only slightly better having won once in the last four. A turbulent season this one for the Reds, firstly a change of coach half-way through and now the voluntary liquidation of their shirt sponsor means they miss out on that money as well! Reds goalkeeper makes his 150th A-League appearance, while Roar striker Besart Berisha will play his 50th game for the club and looking to build on his 33 goal tally, 12 of which have come this season. Roar usually do well here but Adelaide are usually hard to beat at home and I'm tipping them to take the points in this one.
The game of the round is next up with table toppers Central Coast Mariners hosting second placed Western Sydney Wanderers for the first time. A sell-out crowd is expected including about nine bays full of Wanderers supporters and it should be compulsive viewing. The Mariners are unbeaten at home having won nine of the ten played at Bluetongue while the Wanderers are aiming for an A-League record of eight straight wins in what has been an absolutely amazing first season in the competition. The Mariners have to back up after their Asian Champions League exertions on Wednesday night, but they rested players such as John Hutchinson and Patrick Zwaanswijk and they will be re-instated for this one. Winning, of course, is a habit and the Wanderers are certainly in the habit, but the Mariners get themselves up for the big games better than most. It would be easy to sit on the fence and tip a draw, but I just have a sneaking feeling that the Mariners big game experience will just get them the three points here.
Saturday's final game sees Perth Glory entertaining Sydney FC. The change of coach, with Alistair Edwards taking over, worked for Glory in his first game but the elation was short lived and it was back to losing 1-0 (the ninth time they've lost by that score this season) in the next at Western Sydney. Sydney FC and all their star signings hardly covered themselves in glory (pardon the pun) in their 3-1 loss at Melbourne Heart last weekend either, which stalled their run for a finals spot. Glory are still missing captain Jacob Burns, but Sydney FC have dispelled any injury worries with striker Joel Griffiths are have a full strength line up to choose from. For me, there's something I can't put my finger on that's still not quite right with the Sky Blues and I think they'll be overpowered by an enthusiastic Perth Glory.
On Sunday Wellington Phoenix have to back up after the loss of foundation coach Ricki Herbert and a rare home defeat by the Newcastle Jets last Wednesday. They would, no doubt, have preferred to stay in the comfort of their own home ground, but this weekend's game against Melbourne Heart is being taken down south to Dunedin. New Phoenix coach Chris Greenacre says he won't make many changes (not that he's got too many options at present!), but some of his squad look decidedly jaded and star striker Paul Ifill is a mere shadow of what he's been in previous seasons. Despite being bottom of the table and their finals chances slipping away, they still have pride to play for and will know that Melbourne Heart are useless away from home - they've only picked up one point out of 33 available in 11 away games so far! Heart's away form has to improve sometime and I'm tipping them to get another point from this fixture!
The final game of the round has Newcastle Jets moving on from Wellington and going into camp in Melbourne to face the Victory. Victory have now lost three games in succession for the first time since November 2005 and, should they fail to claim any points against the Jets on Sunday, will fall to a club record fourth straight defeat. The Jets have won just once in their last eight excursions to the Victorian capital and will be facing a team that will be smarting big-time after copping a six goal mauling at the Central Coast last week. The Jets will have had their confidence boosted after beating the Phoenix for the first time since season one, but in trying to keep players fresh and rotated in the run up to the finals have announced that veterans Emile Heskey and Michael Bridges will be rested for this one. They will also be without injured midfielder Zenon Caravella, who has made a good impression since joining mid-season from Adelaide, and full-back Sam Gallaway who picked up a knee injury in Wednesday's game. Do they have enough depth in the squad to cover those losses? I'm not sure and I think they'll be pleased with a draw here!