Preview: Gold Coast United v Melbourne Victory
This looms as one of the most intriguing battles of the season, with this year's leading team taking on the top team from last season.
Date: Saturday September 26 Kick-off: 7:30pm AEST Venue: Skilled Park, Robina
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Last five matches: Gold Coast United: Round 3: Adelaide United 0, Gold Coast United 2, Hindmarsh Stadium Round 4: Newcastle Jets 1, Gold Coast United 0, EnergyAustralia Stadium Round 5: Gold Coast United 2, Sydney FC 1, Skilled Park Round 6: Perth Glory 2, Gold Coast United 2, ME Bank Stadium Round 7: Central Coast Mariners 3, Gold Coast United 0, Bluetongue Stadium
Melbourne Victory: Round 3: North Queensland Fury 0, Melbourne Victory 1, Dairy Farmers Stadium Round 4: Perth Glory 2, Melbourne Victory 1, ME Bank Stadium Round 5: Melbourne Victory 1, Newcastle Jets 1, Etihad Stadium Round 6: Melbourne Victory 1, Wellington Phoenix 1, Etihad Stadium Round 7: Adelaide United 0, Melbourne Victory 2, Hindmarsh Stadium
Analysis: This looms as one of the most intriguing battles of the season, with this year's leading team taking on the top team from last season. What has made it even harder to read is that host Gold Coast comes into the match on the back of it worst performance of the season, while Melbourne makes its first ever trip to Skilled Park having secured its best win in the previous match.
Miron Bleiberg's men were humbled 3-0 by Central Coast last week and to add insult to injury, Shane Smeltz was sent off and will miss this match because of it. Bleiberg admitted that his team was taken by surprise by the Mariners and possibly underestimated them. However, he will be confident his players will be up for this game, just the third at home in the first eight rounds.
Gold Coast is yet to drop a point at Skilled Park, hammering North Queensland 5-0 and defeating Sydney FC 2-1. This is the first of five home games in the next seven matches for the new franchise and this could be very much the period which defines its tilt at the premiership.
Joel Porter returns in a boost for the home side after missing the past two matches with a calf injury while Andrew Barisic is back from suspension and Robson has recovered from a knee injury. James Brown is also into a squad which will see three omitted on match day.
As well as Smeltz, other players unavailable for this match include Jefferson (knee), Tahj Minniecon (Young Socceroos), Zenon Caravella (hip), Daniel Piorkowski (ankle) and Scott Higgins (shoulder).
Melbourne has its fair share of injury concerns as well, with Nick Ward, who scored a great goal in the 2-0 win over Adelaide last week, out for at least two weeks after being hospitalised with an infection.
Tom Pondeljak and Robbie Kruse have both been named in the squad, but both have injury clouds hanging over them, while back-up attacking options Nathan Elasi (Young Socceroos) and Mathew Theodore (glute) are unavailable along with defender Steven Pace (abdominal). Evan Berger returns from injury, while Mate Dugandzic and Matthew Foschini have been included in the squad.
The absence of Ward, and possibly Pondeljak, is a big blow after both of them thrived in attacking roles against Adelaide last week. Ernie Merrick's decision to go with a more mobile attack paid big dividends, with a 2-0 win highlighted by quick ball movement and the best defensive performance of the year.
It was just the second clean sheet of the season for a team which last year prided itself on defence. It spoke volumes for the presence of skipper Kevin Muscat, who marshalled his troops well on his return from injury. The influence of Muscat on the discipline and organisation of the Melbourne team can not be underestimated.
The Melbourne defence would be happy not to have to deal with Smeltz this week, given the strong record he had against them when he was at Wellington. But the bigger challenge will be limiting the influence of Jason Culina.
Merrick indicated he didn't favour man-marking the Socceroos midfielder, but instead closing up the space in which he can operate. That job will likely fall to either, or both of, Leigh Broxham and Grant Brebner, depending on what formation Merrick goes for.
Both teams see this clash as crucial to measuring where they are this season, with an away win enough for Melbourne to close the gap, but a home win would propel Gold Coast into a very strong position and set it up perfectly for the rest of the season. With so much at stake, you'd expect it to be a very tight tussle.
Gold Coast United Squad: 1.Jess VANSTRATTAN (gk), 2.Steve PANTELIDIS, 3.Michael THWAITE, 5.ROBSON, 10.Jason CULINA (c), 11.MILSON, 13.Bas VAN DEN BRINK, 14.Joel PORTER, 16.Kristian REES, 17.Matt OSMAN, 18.James BROWN, 19.Andrew BARISIC, 22.Adama TRAORE, 23.Steve FITZSIMMONS, 24.ANDERSON, 25.Steven LUSTICA, 26.Golgol MEBRAHTU, 40.Robbie BAJIC (gk).
*three to be omitted*
In: Joel PORTER (return from calf injury), Andrew BARISIC (return from suspension), James BROWN (promoted), ROBSON (return from knee injury).
Out: Shane SMELTZ (suspended - 1 week).
Unavailable: JEFFERSON (knee injury - 4 weeks), Tahj MINNIECON (international duty). Zenon CARAVELLA (hip injury - 1 week), Shane SMELTZ (suspended - 1 week), Daniel PIORKOWSKI (ankle injury - 10 weeks). Scott HIGGINS (gk) (shoulder injury - 1 week)
Melbourne Victory squad: 1.Mitchell LANGERAK (gk), 2.Kevin MUSCAT (c), 3.Mate DUGANDZIC, 5.Surat SUKHA, 6.Leigh BROXHAM, 7.Matthew KEMP, 8.Grant BREBNER, 10.Archie THOMPSON, 11.NEY FABIANO, 12.Rodrigo VARGAS, 15.Tom PONDELJAK, 16.Carlos HERNANDEZ, 17.Matthew FOSCHINI, 19.Evan BERGER, 20.Glen MOSS (gk), 21.Robbie KRUSE, 23.Adrian LEIJER
*two to be omitted*
In: Matthew FOSCHINI (promoted), Mate DUGANDZIC (promoted), Evan BERGER (return from injury)
Out: Nick WARD (groin - 2 weeks)
Unavailable: Billy CELESKI (knee - season), Nathan ELASI (international duty), Mathew THEODORE (glute - 2 weeks), Steven PACE (abdominal - 2 weeks)