A-League Preview: Melbourne Victory v Central Coast Mariners
Played: 29 – Victory 10, Mariners 11, Drawn 8
Mariners 1-3 Victory, February 8, 2014
Past five matches (including AFC Champions League):
Kevin Muscat will be without key players Mark Milligan and Tom Rogic due to international duty, while Adrian Leijer is still sidelined due to facial injuries. Pablo Contreras is available again after serving a suspension, but now it's Nick Ansell's turn to be sidelined due to a ban after he was harshly sent off in the derby defeat to Melbourne Heart. Kosta Barbarouses is likely to be named on the bench due to his commitments with the New Zealand national team, who are playing a friendly against Japan on Wednesday evening.
The Mariners have been shaky themselves in recent weeks, but finally registered an overdue win at home to Sydney FC last time out. These two sides are direct rivals for a top-six berth, which is by no means assured for either club. Victory must dig deep to respond to their 4-0 loss against Melbourne Heart, while the Mariners need a win on the road to prove they can still have a meaningful impact on the finals.
The big issue:
Victory - Conceding goals is a major problem for Melbourne Victory. They haven't kept a clean sheet in their last 13 matches in all competitions since beating Perth Glory 2-0 at home in December. It's 11 goals they've shipped in their last three games, losing 4-0 to Heart, going down 4-2 at Guangzhou Evergrande and beating Adelaide 4-3. Constant changes to the defence through injury and suspension haven't helped, while inconsistent goalkeeper Nathan Coe was axed in favour of Lawrence Thomas for the derby. Victory's top heavy attack and exposed midfield two surely doesn't do their backline any favours. Coach Kevin Muscat has to find a way plug the leak or the team's finals participation could come under threat, and their ACL campaign won't last beyond the group stage.
Mariners - Central Coast have to try and build on their win over Sydney FC to regain some confidence and momentum heading into the sharp end of the season. It remains to be seen if the players Phil Moss has recruited to replace so many recent departures can take the Gosford side far in the A-League finals and ACL, but there were signs of encouragement in the 2-1 win over the Sky Blues. Kim Seung-Yong announced his arrival with a well-taken strike, and Mitchell Duke supplied an overdue goal. Both clubs however will have one eye on next week's ACL commitments, and that could prompt a few reshuffles, but only if the players can be found to allow others a rest.
The game breaker:
With Tom Rogic unavailable, Guilherme Finkler will be Victory's absolute main man on Friday night. Ineligible for the ACL, expect him to start and finish the game against the Mariners. Given Milligan is also missing, expect Leigh Broxham and Rashid Mahazi to do the dirty work at the base of the midfield, and Finkler will be expected to knit everything together in the final third, as well as linking with the deeper pair. It will be a busy night for the Brazilian, but he's demonstrated in recent matches he has what it takes to be the difference for the navy blue and whites.
Prediction: Victory 2-1 Mariners
The Victory have become a real Jekyll and Hyde outfit in the second half of 2013-14, losing games they're expected to win, winning games they've been given no chance in and dominating halves or periods of play before throwing away leads or vice versa. Who knows what to expect on Friday night? But having been thrashed by their arch-rivals Heart last time out, the law of Victory averages suggests a performance is due this weekend, before another capitulation turns up against Jeonbuk Motors in the ACL next Wednesday. Whatever happens, Victory and the Mariners both have just four points separating them from seventh place and the embarrassment of missing out on the finals. Motivation should not be the issue. Guaranteeing consistent performances is another matter altogether, a mystery both Moss and Muscat have yet to figure out.