Phil Dando previews the final round of the A-League season, including the Jets' crucial showdown with Western Sydney.
It's a gripping finale to the regular season this Easter weekend with all ten teams playing a meaningful game which would delight the FFA and A-League hierarchy. Two teams are playing for the right to call themselves the Premiers; two teams are vying for third and fourth place and with it an important home semi-final; no less than four teams are left to battle it out for two remaining play-off spots and the other two are playing to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon!
The long weekend starts early up in Brisbane when, champions for the last two seasons, the Roar host Sydney FC on Thursday evening. Both teams have overcome horror starts to the season to put themselves in contention for the finals, and a win would guarantee finals football, but a loss for either could be fatal and a draw may not be enough either! Two of the league-s best attacking weapons in Brisbane-s Besart Berisha (13 goals) and Sydney-s Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero (13 goals) will light up this game too. With the exception of captain Matt Smith - out for the season with a hip injury, Roar have a full-strength squad to pick from. Fit again Sydney FC captain Terry McFlynn has recovered from a hamstring strain and is likely to fill the central midfield role vacated by the suspended Brett Emerton, after his red card against Western Sydney. Roar have won eight of the twelve games played between these two clubs at Suncorp Stadium and lost only twice and, with the backing of a big crowd, I don't see them losing this one either. I predict that the Roar will win and that Sydney's season ends this weekend.
Good Friday sees Western Sydney Wanderers travelling up the freeway to take on the Newcastle Jets. The Wanderers need just a point to clinch the Premiers Plate, while the Jets must win to have a chance of securing a place in the top six. The Jets welcome back marquee striker Emile Heskey who has missed three games with a calf injury, and will be glad to have him as they go on all out attack against a Wanderers team that is likely to sit back and try to hit them on the counter-attack. Wanderers marquee player Shinji Ono is out with a groin injury and will be greatly missed, while captain Michael Beauchamp (quad), Adam D-Apuzzo (foot), Jerome Polenz (quad) and Aaron Mooy (knee) are also all likely to be unavailable. Wanderers defender Iacopo La Rocca's season is over with a four match ban incurred for violent conduct last week. The Jets have not won a final round clash since 2007/08 when they defeated Perth Glory 2-1 while the Wanderers' winning streak finished at ten last week with the draw against Sydney FC. I don't think recent form will count for much in this blockbuster which will be watched by the biggest crowd of the season at Hunter Stadium. Around 7,000 of the Red and Black Bloc are expected to swell the crowd numbers to watch their team in a fairytale finish to the end of the regular season. I have to tell you that I've been watching football for 55 years and fairytales don't happen! This is Newcastle's final and we know that they always get themselves up for the big one. Their Squadron will be attempting to outshout the Wanderers fans and I've a sneaking suspicion that they will be shouting the Jets home to a semi-finals spot!
Two games on Saturday, the first being the Central Coast Mariners at home to Melbourne Heart. By then of course the Mariners will know if they are still in with a chance of winning the Premiers Plate which will depend on the Wanderers' result in Newcastle. Mariners coach Graham Arnold says he will put a youth team out if they can't win the Premiers Plate as his team have to travel to China straight afterwards for their Asian Champions League qualifier. Unfortunately for him, that is the trappings of success and he has to live with it! The Mariners have claimed maximum points on both occasions that these teams have met already this season. Heart are yet to score against the Mariners and their away form has been nothing short of pitiful (one point out of a possible 36) and another loss here could see them with the wooden spoon. The Mariners have won their last two without conceding a goal - the Heart have lost their last four and scored only one in that time. If my earlier tips are correct, the Mariners will be looking for a win to be crowned Premiers in front of their adoring fans and I think they'll get it!
Later on Saturday night, last season's beaten Grand Finalists Perth Glory will be looking for a win over Adelaide United to climb back into the top six. A record home crowd of more than 18,000 fans is forecast for this match as it will also be Glory-s first game in the new, fully redeveloped nib Stadium. The Reds though will be looking for a result in order to try and claim third spot despite having already sewn up a home elimination final. Glory will regain captain Jacob Burns from suspension but lose playmaker Liam Miller to a one match ban and forward Travis Dodd will also be an absentee as he has torn two ligaments in his knee and requires a reconstruction. Adelaide striker Bruce Djite has returned to full fitness and could start, while Osama Malik (ankle) and Marcelo Carrusca (groin) are on the mend and appear a good chance to be considered to make the trip west. This will be a tight one and I'm tipping a draw.
The final round is completed on Sunday in Wellington with the Phoenix entertaining Melbourne Victory. A win for the Phoenix could lift them off the bottom of the table whilst Victory will be looking for the points to nail down third position. Phoenix were surprise winners at Perth last time out two weeks ago, while Victory were surprise losers at home to the Glory last weekend! Victory will be looking for their sixth consecutive win over Phoenix, but they haven't won outside of Melbourne since January 19 this year. Phoenix striker Jeremy Brockie will be looking for another goal to try to become joint leading goal-scorer with the Mariners' Daniel McBreen - an amazing effort in a team that has been bottom for most of the last half of the season. I think the Victory will have just a bit too much class for them and condemn the Phoenix to the wooden spoon.
Based on the above, here is how I see the table at season's end: 1st Central Coast Mariners 54 pts; 2nd Western Sydney Wanderers 54 pts; 3rd Melbourne Victory 44 pts; 4th Adelaide United 41 pts; 5th Brisbane Roar 35 pts; 6th Newcastle Jets 34 pts; 7th Perth Glory 32 pts; 8th Sydney FC 32 pts; 9th Melbourne Heart 27 pts; Wellington Phoenix 27 pts.