A-League: Brisbane Roar v Melbourne Heart
Played: 11, Wins: Roar 4, Heart 5, Draws: 2
Heart 1-0 Roar, February 23, 2014
Past five matches:
That's it, top spot sewn up and the Roar are guaranteed a week off at the end of the season before a home final. So will Mike Mulvey begin to rotate the squad to ensure his players are as fresh as possible going into the play-offs? It's a tricky balance to strike. Make too many changes and players may lose their match sharpness and rhythm. Don't make enough changes, and key men could be tired when it matters most.
Brisbane have the advantage of not needing to scrap up until the last game to seal a top-two berth, and are free of the AFC Champions League commitments draining some of their likely opponents in the finals. So all that matters now is remaining focused and continuing to perform at a high level, without picking up unnecessary injuries. That process begins this weekend against Heart.
Melbourne Heart's lead-in to this game has been dominated by the news that Harry Kewell will call time on his playing career at the end of the season, and the veteran forward is set to miss this match and the next due to injury, before wowing out against Western Sydney.
The big issue:
Roar – The key issue for the newly crowned premiers is to maintain the momentum which took them to top spot in the regular season standings and carry it into the finals, but without jeopardising the fitness of key players for that all important period. We might see some of the older bodies in the team, like centre-back Matt Smith, midfielder Liam Miller and playmaker Thomas Broich rested at some point in the next three games.
Heart – Impressing John van 't Schip, and by extension the new decision-makers at Heart, will now be the priority for any players out of contract at the end of the season. David Williams, Jason Hoffman and Tando Velaphi have already secured new deals, and strong performances during the last three rounds are an opportunity to stake a claim to a contract extension. Van 't Schip has also confirmed he will consider handing an opportunity to some youngsters and fringe players in the run-in as he turns his attention to preparing for 2014-15.
The game breaker:
Orlando Engelaar produced a strong performance against Central Coast last weekend, scoring from inside his own half and popping up all over the pitch. He was unfortunate to end up on the losing side, and will hope to put that right on Friday night. The Dutchman helped to nullify the Roar's talented midfield in a 1-0 Heart win at AAMI Park in their last meeting, and will need to be on form again if Van 't Schip's side are to take anything from the game.
Prediction: Roar 1-1 Heart
It's tough to know what to expect from this game. Surely there will be a slight drop off in performance levels from the Roar after the tension and then euphoria of their dramatic win over the Victory last time out. With that issue in mind, and places in the starting XI for the final on the line, they may also be determined not to let their standards slip. For Heart meanwhile, an unlikely tilt at the top six is all but mathematically impossible, and it could be difficult for some players to motivate themselves. Throw all those factors into the mix, and we'll go for a draw, but it really is anybody's guess.