A-League Semi-Finals Preview: Western Sydney Wanderers v Central Coast Mariners
Played: 7, Wins: Wanderers 2, Mariners 3, Draws: 2
Mariners 2-1 Wanderers, March 29 2014
Past five matches (in all competitions):
This could have been the first of three clashes between these teams in the space of three weeks, but the Mariners couldn't keep up their end of the bargain, losing 1-0 on Wednesday to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who will now face the Wanderers in the AFC Champions League round of 16 instead of Phil Moss and his team.
So we'll have to make do with this Saturday's A-League semi-final, a re-match of the grand final which Central Coast won 2-0 last year, courtesy of goals from Daniel McBreen and Patrick Zwaanswijk. Such are the changes the Mariners have undergone since April last year that both of the goal-scorers have moved on. In fact only three of the starting XI from that game remain on the club's books, while Bernie Ibini is back in Gosford temporarily, on loan from Shanghai SIPG.
By comparison, 10 of the Wanderers' grand final line-up remain, with Tomi Juric a significant improvement on the only departure, Dino Kresinger. Youssouf Hersi missed the grand final through suspension but is likely to play on Saturday, and Matthew Spiranovic could well start in defence ahead of Michael Beauchamp.
The big issue:
Wanderers – Tony Popovic has made an art form out of talking down his team chances, but whichever way you look at it, and despite the Mariners being the reigning champions, the Wanderers are the favourites this weekend. Western Sydney had last weekend off before a home ACL game against a weakened Guizhou Renhe, who they thrashed 5-0.
The Wanderers players may feel under some pressure to deliver before their impressive inaugural squad undergoes some significant changes. Marquee international Shinji Ono, consistent midfielder Aaron Mooy and dangerous forward Youssouf Hersi are among those expected to depart in the off-season, and there's no guarantee Western Sydney will find themselves in a position of such strength again this time next year.
Mariners – Central Coast will have to summon hidden reserves of energy following a gruelling recent schedule. They had to get past Adelaide at home in an elimination final last Saturday before making the long trip to Hiroshima, where their ACL adventure came to an end in a disappointing narrow loss, a result which will make those tired legs feel heavier still.
Nick Fitzgerald and Bernie Ibini both remained on the bench in that game, while Mitchell Duke only came on for the last seven minutes. Nick Montgomery and Matt Simon were suspended and didn't travel, with all five in contention to start in Parramatta.
The game breaker:
The biggest difference between this Wanderers team and the 2012-13 side is Tomi Juric, who is a mobile, physical presence up front. Able to hold the ball up and bring team-mates into the attack, the 22-year-old is more a goal threat than team-mate Brendon Santalab.
However, Juric started against Guizhou and stayed on until the 76th minute, raising the prospect of him being rested in favour of Santalab against the Mariners. Popovic is no stranger to making unusual decisions when selecting his team, but omitting Juric could play into the hands of the visitors this weekend.
Prediction: Western Sydney 2-1 Central Coast
We expect a well-rested Wanderers team, keen to avenge last season's grand final loss, to have too much energy and desire for the Mariners, who will be both flat and exhausted after making the long trip to Japan without reward. It will still be a close run thing, and the away team can certainly threaten through the pace of Bernie Ibini, but it's Western Sydney who will be advancing to a second successive A-League decider.