A-League: Central Coast v Wellington Phoenix

Central Coast Mariners and Wellington Phoenix will meet in Round 20 of the 2013-14 A-League season at Bluetongue Stadium on Friday, February 21 at 7.30pm AEDT.

Head-to-head:
Played 22 - Wins: Mariners 12, Phoenix 6, Draws: 4

Previous encounter:
Wellington 1-1 Mariners, January 12, 2014

Form:
Past five matches
Mariners: LLLWW
Phoenix: LWWLW

The game:
The Friday night game in Round 20 is a match-up between two sides badly in need of a win, albeit for different reasons. The reigning champions have now lost three matches in succession since a busy mid-season transfer window cut away another chunk of their title-winning squad. In defence of Phil Moss and his much-changed team, those defeats came against the league-leading Brisbane Roar, direct finals rivals Melbourne Victory and in-form Adelaide United. But they need to stop the rot soon before their own position in the top six comes under threat.

Wellington had been on a roll in recent months, but came unstuck in spectacular fashion on Sunday, losing 5-0 at home to Melbourne Heart. Now we find out what the Phoenix under Merrick are really made of. A victory in Gosford would be the ideal response to that unexpected thrashing, but it won't come easy.

The big issue:
Mariners - Where are goals going to come from for Central Coast? The champions have only scored four times in their last five games and haven't netted more than two goals in a game all season. A glance at the Mariners' scoring chart tells the story. Of the joint leaders on three apiece, Marcos Flores is out for the season and Mile Sterjovski has announced his intention to retire at the end of this season. Mitch Duke, Mat Simon, Daniel McBreen and Michael McGlinchey are next on two goals and the latter pair have now left the club.

Phil Moss must hope Bernie Ibini, back in Gosford on loan from Shanghai SIPG and on target against the Victory in a 3-1 defeat in Round 18, gets among the goals during the remaining weeks of the season.

Phoenix - Wellington need to demonstrate that their 5-0 thrashing at home to Melbourne Heart last Sunday was a blip rather than an indication of more serious underlying issues. Just their second defeat in nine games, the other away to league leaders Brisbane, the scale of the loss and the inability of his players to stem the tide will have concerned Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick. While a trip to face the reigning champions is never an easy assignment, the Mariners are about as vulnerable right now as they've been in a long time, presenting the visitors with a good opportunity to respond.

The game breaker(s):
Nick Montgomery & John Hutchinson. The barometer for Wellington is usually Carlos Hernandez. The majority of attacks flow through him and if the Costa Rican is on form and involved in the game, the Phoenix have a good chance of creating and scoring goals. On Sunday he was marked out of the contest by Patrick Gerhardt, shrewdly deployed by John van 't Schip as a holding player capable of both disrupting the hosts and sparking his own side's attacks. Montgomery and Hutchinson will be tasked with shutting down the New Zealand side's mercurial playmaker on Friday night, and you can expect both to be involved in launching the Mariners' own forays forward. If they have a good night, Central Coast will be well positioned to take all three points.

Prediction: Central Coast 2-1 Wellington Phoenix
The Kiwi team's confidence will surely have taken a hit with the thrashing Heart administered at Westpac Stadium. The Mariners meanwhile, despite considerable upheaval, are a better team than their recent results suggest and due a good result. Kim Seung-Yong could start the game after coming off the bench in Adelaide, and Moss needs the Korean playmaker to prove a hit if the champions are to revive their flagging title defence. Duke and Ibini also need to step up and help out Simon.


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