As the race for the top six continues to hot up, there’s a new coach on the Central Coast, a serious selection dilemma for Markus Babbel and plenty of questions surrounding Sydney’s wantaway star.
Just six games to go, Australia — here’s what you need to know ahead of Round 22.
REDS’ FINALS SPOT UNDER SERIOUS THREAT
(31 points, 5th)
(48 points, 1st)
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(26 points, 7th)
(7 points, 10th)
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(38 points, 3rd)
(15 points, 9th)
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(31 points, 4th)
(20 points, 8th)
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(42 points, 2nd)
(30 points, 6th)
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Adelaide United vs Perth Glory — Friday 7:50PM, Coopers Stadium
Adelaide United are a club on the slide, both on and off the field.
Winless since February, the Reds are currently enduring one of their driest runs under Marco Kurz, taking only two points from the last 12 on offer.
On the face of it, things don’t appear to get any easier this weekend either as the best team in the league travel east to Coopers Stadium.
A glance at the league ladder is proof; Tony Popovic’s Perth have been imperious this season, building a six-point buffer at the top and yet form would indicate there hasn’t been a better time to play the Glory all season long.
Only once before last weekend had Perth dropped points on consecutive occasions, but the current league-leaders come into this match off the back of a couple of uncharacteristic draws with the Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City.
For whatever reason, Perth haven’t been their clinical best in recent weeks and while it may not be a huge opportunity for Kurz and co., it’s an opportunity nonetheless — and one they need to make the most of.
The resurgent performances of Newcastle and, to a lesser extent Western Sydney, have heaped the pressure on a trio of team’s teetering on the edge of the top six, namely Melbourne City and Adelaide who, after suffering poor runs of form, now sit less than two wins away from the chasing pack.
It’s time to shape up in South Australia on Friday night.
STAJ’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE ON THE CENTRAL COAST
Newcastle Jets vs Central Coast Mariners — Saturday 5:35PM, McDonald Jones Stadium
Well, who saw that coming?
In one of the most unexpected moves of the season, the most victimised man in Australian football, Alen Stajcic, this week took the reigns at the country’s most maligned football club: the Central Coast Mariners.
Few would have picked the controversially-sacked Matildas coach as the man to replace the departing Mike Mulvey when news broke in the early hours of Sunday morning that he’d be moving on.
So, what to expect from a Stajcic-led Mariners outfit?
If his unveiling is anything to go by, the biggest challenge on the Central Coast is to instil a sense of hope at the club, but not just among the playing group.
“There is hope, there’s always hope,” Stajcic said in his first press appearance as Mariners boss, on Tuesday.
“There’s 7000 members here who the club is representing, that’s a massive number for a regional area and every time we go out on the pitch we have to keep those fans in the back of our minds and know that they’re at the front and centre of who we’re representing when we go out to play.”
It mightn’t be an over-complicated or highly technical brief, but restoring hope to a fanbase that has won just the one game all season won’t be easy — especially when you consider just how fed up the Mariners faithful have become.
Crowd numbers have dwindled over the course of the campaign, culminating last weekend when a measly 3703 turned out to witness Wellington run riot. It was the worst turnout of any match, for any club this season.
This weekend could go one of two-ways. Notching a big F3 derby win against their nearest geographical rivals — the Newcastle Jets — could absolutely reinvigorate a disinterested fanbase.
But fail to front up and disillusionment will grow, while attendances continue to shrink on the Central Coast. It could be a long six weeks.
BRISBANE’S HOMEGROWN TAGGART REPLACEMENT TAKES TEST
Melbourne Victory vs Brisbane Roar — Saturday 7:50PM, Marvel Stadium
No matter where you go in the world, nothing gets football fans more enamoured than homegrown talent, which is exactly why Roar fans are making a fuss over Dylan Wenzel-Halls.
The 21-year-old recently signed a new, long-term deal with the Brisbane club and — like many NPL graduates this season — has proved he’s more than capable of making the step to the next level.
Losing a striker worth close to a goal contribution a game in Adam Taggart partway through the season was less than ideal for a club that had already endured a pretty disastrous first half of a campaign, but Wenzel-Halls’ recent performances have softened the blow.
Not only has the youngster started the last five games, playing the full 90 on four occasions, he has also notched four goals and an assist in a fruitful start to 2019.
Goalscoring aside, the former Western Pride forward plays with a stubborn fearlessness in the attacking third. But whether he’ll be able to impact against a shrewd defensive outfit like the Victory remains to be seen.
Playing off the top, he’ll likely be sandwiched behind midfield enforcer Carl Valeri and defenders Georg Niedermeier and Leigh Broxham. While there isn’t a great deal of speed or mobility in that defensive trio, there is a hell of a lot of experience.
Youthful exuberance meets
WILL BAUMJOHANN BE BACK?
Wellington Phoenix vs Western Sydney Wanderers — Sunday 5:00PM, Westpac Stadium
Not everything Markus Babbel has tried during his time at the helm in Western Sydney has worked out, but this move certainly did.
A shock omission, the German coach chose to leave creative midfielder Alexander Baumjohann out of the matchday squad to face Brisbane last Friday.
“I wasn’t happy, I was talking to him, [and said] ‘I’m not happy with your week.’ It was not enough for me because now I have these options,” Babbel said after the match.
“I can’t say to someone who is giving 100% ‘you stay at home,’ I’m not doing this, so I hope we see a reaction next week.”
It was a bold move but, in the short-term at least, appears to have worked out as his team overcame an early concession to bang four past a hapless Roar outfit. At the crux of arguably the Wanderers most fluid performance of the season? Baumjohann’s replacement, Roly Bonevacia.
The Dutchman slotted seamlessly into the number ten role usually occupied by the former-Schalke star, creating a game-high six chances, grabbing two assists and finally putting the cherry on top of an almost faultless performance with a goal in injury-time.
A sharp turnaround in form has seen Western Sydney lose just one of their last five in the league and claw their way — even if as an outside shot — into finals contention.
Ahead of this, a must-win against a team currently occupying a precious finals position, Babbel must decide whether Baumjohann can produce like Bonevacia has for his team over recent weeks.
SYDNEY’S DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD DRAMA
Sydney FC vs Melbourne City — Sunday 7:00PM, Leichhardt Oval
It was another sorry week for Australian clubs fighting on the continent.
Melbourne Victory were outdone by a disciplined Sanfrecce Hiroshima side on Tuesday night just a day before Sydney FC conceded an 83rd minute winner against Kawasaki Frontale. But, strangely enough, Sydney’s loss wasn’t the most concerning aspect of their Japanese excursion.
Just an hour before kick-off, as the team sheets were turned in, Sydney FC tweeted the following:
Now the former-Fiorentina midfielder has been left out of the squad entirely for this clash on Sunday, a move to Korean giants Pohang Steelers rumoured to be on the cards.
Joshua Brillante has, in every way, and in combination with Brandon O’Neill, been the heartbeat of Sydney FC since arriving at the club in July of 2016.
Only out-passed by his midfield partner this season, the 25-year-old has featured in every match he’s been available for, missing just once due to suspension. He’s been substituted only twice.
Throughout those 20 matches, he’s hit the mark with his passes 89% of the time and off-the-ball has shown time and time again that he possesses the defensive nous to snuff out opposition attacks.
Replacing the quality of a former-Socceroo will be an almost impossible task at this late stage of the season, but it does afford Paulo Retre — the man tasked with filling the Brillante-void on Wednesday — a run of games to finally cement a spot in the team.
And what better place to start, on Australian soil, than to take on your former team, Melbourne City, at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday evening.