Preview: Gold Coast United v Melbourne Victory
The battle for the Premier's Plate heats up at Skilled Park on Friday, with Gold Coast looking to keep its hopes of finishing in top spot at season's end alive against Melbourne Victory.
Date: Friday January 29 Kick-off: 7:30pm AEST, 8:30pm AEDT Venue: Skilled Park, Robina
Head-to-head Played 2: Wins: Melbourne Victory 2, Gold Coast United 0. Draws: 0
Previous Meeting Melbourne Victory 4, Gold Coast United 0, Etihad Stadium, November 2009
Past five matches: Melbourne Victory: Round 21: North Queensland Fury 1, Melbourne Victory 0, Dairy Farmers Stadium Round 22: Newcastle Jets 3, Melbourne Victory 2, EnergyAustralia Stadium Round 23: Melbourne Victory 6, Perth Glory 2, Etihad Stadium Round 24: Melbourne Victory 2, Adelaide United 0, Etihad Stadium Round 19: Melbourne Victory 4, Wellington Phoenix 0, Etihad Stadium
Gold Coast: Round 21: Gold Coast United 5, Brisbane Roar 1, Skilled Park Round 22: Gold Coast United 1, Adelaide United 1, Skilled Park Round 19: Gold Coast United 2, Newcastle Jets 0, Skilled Park Round 23: Sydney FC 0, Gold Coast United 1, Sydney Football Stadium Round 24: Central Coast Mariners 1, Gold Coast United 1, Skilled Park
Analysis: The battle for the Premier's Plate heats up at Skilled Park on Friday, with Gold Coast looking to keep its hopes of finishing in top spot at season's end alive against Melbourne Victory.
For much of the second half of the season, three teams seemed destined to fight out the top two spots and the double chance that comes with it. Melbourne's strong run of form, which has seen it win three home games in succession, has put it three points clear of United ahead of this match and an away win here would see the defending champion, which has a superior goal difference, sew up a top-two finish.
However, a Gold Coast win would throw the race for top spot wide open with just two matches to go. United is unbeaten in six games, having drawn its most recent clash against Central Coast and come into this contest off a seven-day break. The visitors have had no such luxury, having played two games since Gold Coast last played.
With the quick back-up in mind, Melbourne coach Ernie Merrick has added three youngsters into an extended squad - Aziz Behich, Nathan Elasi and Matthew Foschini. He took his three main attacking players - Carlos Hernandez, Archie Thompson and Robbie Kruse - off in Tuesday night's comfortable 4-0 win over Wellington in a bid to keep them fresh for this match.
Thompson must be some slight doubt having picked up a knock to go with his goal in that game, while Hernandez is still getting back to full fitness after suffering an ankle injury four weeks ago. Merrick has the option of playing one of Nick Ward, Tom Pondeljak or Marvin Angulo in a more advanced role in the place of one of that trio, but may choose to stick with the tried and tested and look to switch things around later in the game.
Melbourne's defence has tightened up noticeably over the past two weeks, with Mitch Langerak keeping consecutive clean sheets. The defensive trio of Kevin Muscat, Adrian Leijer and Rody Vargas are in good form and could be re-united with Matthew Kemp at the back after the full back impressed in his return from injury off the bench on Tuesday.
Gold Coast has at last found the consistency it has craved all season, especially at Skilled Park where from its last six it has won five and drawn the other. While the draw with the Mariners wasn't a great performance, it worked hard to make sure it got something out of the contest.
A virus has threatened to derail preparations for this match, with Shane Smeltz and Charlie Miller both falling sick during the week. Both have been named, but Miron Bleiberg has also included James Brown, Andrew Barisic and Steve Fitzsimmons in an extended squad.
Fresh in the minds of both Bleiberg and his players will be the 4-0 thrashing they were handed out when these two teams last met at Etihad Stadium in November. In that match, Melbourne's pace up front troubled United's under-strength defence. The other match between the pair also ended in Melbourne's favour 3-2, but Gold Coast was unlucky to have not got anything out of a close contest.
Given there have been nine goals in the two clashes and these are the two most prolific teams in front of goal in the competition, you would expect plenty of chances here. The doubts over the key strikers from both sides will mean that finishing could prove the difference between the two teams.
Gold Coast United Squad: 1.Jess VANSTRATTAN (gk), 2.Steve PANTELIDIS, 3.Michael THWAITE, 7.Zenon CARAVELLA, 9.Shane SMELTZ, 10.Jason CULINA (c), 11.Charlie MILLER, 13.Bas VAN DEN BRINK, 14.Joel PORTER, 15.Tahj MINNIECON, 16.Kristian REES, 17.Matt OSMAN, 18.James BROWN, 19.Andrew BARISIC, 20.Scott HIGGINS (gk), 23.Steve FITZSIMMONS, 24.ANDERSON, 36.Dino DJULBIC *three to be omitted*
In: James BROWN (promoted), Andrew BARISIC (promoted), Steve FITZSIMMONS (promoted)
Unavailable: Adama TRAORE (ankle injury - 1 week), Daniel PIORKOWSKI (ankle injury - indefinite), JEFFERSON (knee injury - indefinite)
Melbourne Victory squad: 1.Mitchell LANGERAK (gk), 2.Kevin MUSCAT (c), 6.Leigh BROXHAM, 7. Matthew KEMP, 8.Grant BREBNER, 10.Archie THOMPSON, 12.Rodrigo VARGAS, 13.Nathan ELASI, 15.Tom PONDELJAK, 16.Carlos HERNANDEZ, 17.Matthew FOSCHINI, 19. Evan BERGER, 20.Glen MOSS (gk), 21.Robbie KRUSE, 22.Nick WARD, 23.Adrian LEIJER, 25.Aziz BEHICH, 26.Marvin ANGULO *three to be omitted*
In: Aziz BEHICH (promoted), Nathan ELASI (promoted), Matthew FOSCHINI (promoted)
Unavailable: Billy CELESKI (knee - season), Mate DUGANDZIC (calf - 1 week), Steven PACE (abdomen - indefinite), Surat SUKHA (hamstring - 1 week)