A-League Preview: Western Sydney Wanderers v Brisbane Roar
Played: 6, Wins: Wanderers 4, Roar 1, Draws: 1
Wanderers 1-1 Roar, February 7 2014
Past five matches:
Western Sydney's season could be indelibly defined on Saturday night. Throughout the 2013-14 A-League campaign, Wanderers head coach Tony Popovic has rotated his squad, always looking ahead to the AFC Champions League (ACL) and, seemingly, very keen to be ready to go one step further than last season and win the domestic championship. But all that squad rotation could be for naught if the Wanderers lose to Brisbane in the penultimate round.
As the domestic campaign comes to a close, Western Sydney are stuttering with three defeats and a draw in their past five matches. In fact, the Wanderers have only won twice in eight games and both those victories have come against bottom club Perth Glory. Last week, Popovic's men went down 2-1 to Central Coast Mariners, which saw the Wanderers drop to third. If Western Sydney are to win the championship they will almost certainly have to finish in the top two - no club has ever won the grand final after finishing third or lower - and only a victory will ensure the Wanderers remain in the hunt for second spot at the end of Round 26.
Western Sydney will take on the Roar on the back of two straight defeats. The loss to Central Coast was followed by a 2-1 defeat at Kawasaki Frontale in the ACL on Tuesday. By contrast, Brisbane head into the contest unbeaten in five games. Mike Mulvey's Roar have won four of those matches to streak 12 points clear at the top of the table. The recently-crowned premiers trumped Melbourne Heart 2-1 last week despite Besart Berisha getting sent off for the third time this season.
The big issue:
Wanderers – Will the ACL cost Western Sydney the toilet seat? Popovic has not really talked about the A-League championship this season but he appeared happy enough throughout this season to miss out on the premiership, if it meant his team were flying in the finals and in Asia. While the Wanderers have impressed in their inaugural Asian campaign, they are in danger of falling as low as sixth before the finals. A strong performance against the Roar at home would give Western Sydney some much-needed momentum ahead of the finals.
Roar – Western Sydney defeated Brisbane four times in their maiden season. Although the Roar are unbeaten against the Wanderers this season, the question remains; are Western Sydney Brisbane's bogey team? Mulvey's men gave up a lead in Parramatta in their last meeting with the Wanderers with Labinot Haliti scoring a late equaliser for the home side. For most of this season, many expected Brisbane to meet Western Sydney in the grand final. That may seem less likely now but Mulvey will surely want to put the bogey concept to bed on Saturday night.
The game breaker:
Dimitri Petratos - With Berisha suspended again, Mulvey will need one of his other attackers to step up at Pirtek Stadium. Berisha is the Roar's leading goal-scorer this season with 11 goals but Brisbane need to get used to his absence either way, as the Albanian striker will join Melbourne Victory next season. Petratos scored his first goal in 11 matches last week to join Ivan Franjic and Henrique on five goals, second only to Berisha. The 21-year-old attacker has been very impressive in 2013-14 but could stake a claim to be Brisbane's leading striker next season with a strong finish to this campaign.
Prediction: Wanderers 1-2 Roar
With a trip to Japan and back this week, Western Sydney will clearly be on the back foot as far as preparation is concerned. The ACL has clearly had an effect on all three Australian representatives over the past month, even if the Wanderers, Melbourne Victory and Central Coast Mariners have competed admirably on two fronts. Meanwhile, Brisbane have put their mini-slump in February behind them and are undeniable favourites to win the A-League double.
After a tough period with injuries through the middle of the season, Brisbane are starting to get most of Mulvey's preferred starting XI back on the pitch. While Berisha will be absent on Saturday night, the past five games prove the Roar have enough quality to make up for the Albanian's absence. Brisbane have had seven different goal-scorers in that period with Berisha the only player with more than one. It makes the Roar incredibly difficult to stop and should see them overcome Western Sydney.