Preview: Central Coast Mariners v Melbourne Victory

The Mariners are injury free and are always tough at home while Victory must bounce back from the loss against the Wanderers.

Date: Saturday 23 February, 2012 Kick-off: 7:45 AEDT, 7:45pm local Venue: Bluetongue Stadium

Head-to-head Played: 25 Wins: Central Coast 9, Melbourne Victory 9, Draws: 7

Previous encounter Melbourne Victory 1-1 Central Coast, 12 January 2012

Form: Past five matches: Central Coast: LWDWD Melbourne Victory: LLWWW

The Game After both suffering 2-1 defeats last round, the two finals aspirants will be keen to reassert themselves, particularly as challenger Western Sydney has won 10 of their past 12 games.

The Mariners still remain in top spot, one point clear of the Wanderers, despite a loss against Perth and draws against Newcastle and Brisbane among their last five games. With their Asian Champions League campaign kicking off against Suwon Bluewings only four days after this clash, Graham Arnold will be keen to get a win against a finals rival before the fixture list becomes congested.

As the games mount up, Arnold will be thankful that he has a fit squad to choose from and after the loss against Perth, attackers Mitchell Duke and Nick Fitzgerald may feature following a toothless display from the Mariners forwards.

With two consecutive losses against Western Sydney and Adelaide, Ange Postecoglou's men have dropped to third position, six points behind Central Coast and will not want to let that gap get any larger with only seven games to play.

The Victory have a few injury problems with star forward Archie Thompson (hamstring) expected to miss the clash and Nick Ansell's absence through a groin injury expected to continue for the remainder of the home-and-away season.

The defence, however, will be boosted by the return of Adama Traore from suspension while young winger Connor Pain put his hand up for a start after coming on as a substitute and scoring his debut goal against the Wanderers.

The Big Issue Mariners: Are Central Coast suffering from the loss of prodigy Tom Rogic to Celtic? The answer is yes and no. Playing at the attacking point of a midfield diamond, Rogic was the major provider of creativity in a dominant Mariners side.

When Rogic was playing, the underrated Michael McGlinchey would play in central midfield and the two would link up well. In the past eight games, McGlinchey has slotted seamlessly into a more advanced role, scoring two goals, and becoming a handful for opposition defences in Rogic's absence. But not having the two players together in the side has definitely weakened one of the competition's best attacks.

Victory: How will Ange Postecoglou combat the Mariners' flying full-back duo? In the last clash between the two sides, Victory dominated the first half, with Marco Rojas and Thompson running riot down the wings, forcing Central Coast full-backs Josh Rose and Pedj Bojic to be stay in their own half.

The second half was a different story, as the two full-backs were instructed to get forward whenever possible and were at the forefront of the Mariners gaining a foothold in the game. Watch this battle with interest but expect Postecoglou to go for broke and instruct his wingers to attack and not relent.

Gamebreaker Daniel McBreen: The league's top-scorer has smashed in 15 goals this season and has contributed all three of the goals that Mariners have scored against Victory in 2012/13.

It's probably no coincidence when the veteran striker has scored this season, the Mariners haven't lost. As the team's barometer, McBreen's performance will have a large bearing on the result of the game.

Prediction: Central Coast 2-1 Melbourne Victory. The Mariners are injury free and are always tough to beat in front of their home fans while the loss of Archie Thompson seemed to affect Victory significantly against the Wanderers last Saturday.

New central defensive pairing Adrian Leijer and Daniel Mullen had a tough initiation against Western Sydney and it won't get any easier against McBreen, Bernie Ibini and co. There will be several intriguing battles to keep an eye on, with both coaches known for the original tactics.

The game will be won and lost down the flanks, with both sides funnelling the majority of their possession down these avenues. Thompson being absent will hand the advantage to Central Coast but expect an absorbing battle that could go down to the wire.