A-League: Central Coast v Western Sydney
Played: 6, Wins: Mariners 2, Wanderers 2, Draws: 2
Wanderers 2-0 Mariners, December 23 2013
Past five matches:
Two teams back in form, already with plenty of history and keen to claim a mental edge ahead of any potential meetings in the finals. A very tasty encounter.
Saturday afternoon's replay of last season's A-League Grand Final shapes as an incredibly important game for both Central Coast Mariners and Western Sydney Wanderers. The reigning champions will host the Wanderers knowing anything less than victory could see them sucked back towards the brink of the top six as they have only a two-point gap on fifth-placed Adelaide United, while Newcastle Jets and Sydney FC are four points adrift of the Mariners. With three wins in their past four matches in all competitions, Central Coast are improving at the right point of the campaign.
Western Sydney have also found some form with three wins and a draw in their past four games. Tony Popovic's men crushed bottom club Perth Glory 3-0 last week and, if they knock off the Mariners, they will take a significant step towards clinching second spot in the table. The Wanderers sit second heading into Round 25 with a two-point lead on third-placed Melbourne Victory and the Mariners. The Wanderers have not lost to Central Coast since the 2013 Grand Final with the first encounter this season ending in a draw before Western Sydney won the second fixture 2-0.
The big issue:
Mariners – After losing every game they played in February, Phil Moss' Central Coast have triumphed in four of six matches this month. But in a worry for Moss, the Mariners have conceded in every one of those games. The Gosford-based outfit have always prided themselves on a strong defence but have lapsed in that area this season. Can they find a way to claim a clean sheet against one of the lowest-scoring teams in the A-League?
Wanderers – On the way to lifting the Premier's Plate in their inaugural season, Western Sydney scored 41 goals in 27 games. With three games remaining this season, the Wanderers have only managed 29 goals with only Central Coast (28) below them. Can Popovic's men score enough goals to go one better this season and claim the championship? Considering Western Sydney concede a goal every game on average, they need to show they have to firepower to beat a top-four side before the finals begin next month.
The game breaker:
Tomi Juric - At the end of last season, it was widely agreed that Western Sydney needed a top-line centre forward to replace Dino Kresinger. Juric was brought in but his impact has been stunted by injuries. Despite missing nine A-League games, Juric has notched seven goals, with the last of them coming against Perth last week. The 22-year-old striker's size and nose for goal will make him a handful for the Mariners' defenders and he looks set for a strong finish to the campaign.
Prediction: Mariners 1-2 Wanderers
Central Coast have not won a game this season against another member of the current top four. In seven matches, the Mariners have lost five and while they have picked up their form in March, their A-League wins have come against three teams in the bottom half of the table - Sydney FC, Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Heart. Moss' men came from behind to defeat the Heart 2-1 last week but the Wanderers will be a much tougher prospect.
Western Sydney will secure a berth in the finals with a win in Gosford as it will leave them at least six points ahead of both Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets with two games to play. With that to play for and Juric and Mark Bridge (two goals in four games) both finding some goalscoring touch, Popovic should be confident about his team's chances.