Preview: Gold Coast United v Newcastle Jets
Gold Coast may have won three more matches than Newcastle during the season, but the only advantage United will take into this do-or-die encounter is that it will be played at its home ground.
Date: Saturday February 20 Kick-off: 7:00pm AEST, 8:00pm AEST Venue: Skilled Park, Robina
Head-to-head Played 3: Gold Coast United 1, Newcastle Jets 2, Draws 0
Previous Meeting Gold Coast United 2, Newcastle Jets 0, Skilled Park, January 2010
Past five matches: Gold Coast: Round 23: Sydney FC 0, Gold Coast United 1, Sydney Football Stadium Round 24: Central Coast Mariners 1, Gold Coast United 1, Bluetongue Stadium Round 25: Gold Coast United 1, Melbourne Victory 0, Skilled Park Round 26: Gold Coast United 0, Wellington Phoenix 1, Skilled Park Round 27: North Queensland Fury 2, Gold Coast United 1, Dairy Farmers Stadium
Newcastle Jets: Round 23: Brisbane Roar 0, Newcastle Jets 2, Suncorp Stadium Round 24: Newcastle Jets 1, Sydney FC 3, EnergyAustralia Stadium Round 25: North Queensland 2, Newcastle Jets 1, Dairy Farmers Stadium Round 26: Central Coast Mariners 3, Newcastle Jets 0, Bluetongue Stadium Round 27: Newcastle Jets
Analysis: Gold Coast may have won three more matches than Newcastle during the season, but the only advantage United will take into this do-or-die encounter is that it will be played at its home ground.
The format of the finals system makes it just as hard from third as it is from sixth to make the Grand Final and Miron Bleiberg is well aware his team can't afford to slip up at any stage over the next six weeks if they are to mark their entrance to the Hyundai A-League by winning the title.
The problem for Bleiberg is that his team let slip a chance at the top two over the past fortnight with successive defeats against Wellington and North Queensland and that it has to turn things around immediately or risk going from top of the table to a feather duster within the space of four weeks.
Prior to those two defeats, Gold Coast's form had been better than any other team in the competition, going on a seven-match unbeaten run which included wins over top two sides Melbourne and Sydney. During that time, their defence conceded just three goals, while their midfield and attack was working beautifully.
But whether opposition teams have worked out how to stifle GCU or things have gone a little stale down Robina way, Bleiberg needs to figure a way to turn things around against a team which has beaten his side twice this season.
He hasn't reacted at the selection table, including Andrew Barisic and Steve Fitzsimmons into and extended squad with the option of using one extra player off the bench in the finals.
Branko Culina comes into a clash against a team captained by his son Jason knowing the Jets also failed to finish off the season in the manner they would have wished. A 2-1 defeat to Adelaide completed a miserable run of four straight losses. While the result didn't affect their position on the ladder, he would have liked to see the Jets show a bit more against the bottom team in the last match.
However, he would have been pleased with what he would have seen from Ali Abbas, who was sensational in that match. The little Iraqi scored a brilliant goal and did his level best to get Newcastle a share of the points against the Reds.
The Jets were also missing several of their best players in that match. Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Jin-Hyung Song, Jobe Wheelhouse, Sean Rooney and Labinot Haliti are all back, but Michael Bridges will miss the rest of the campaign with a quadriceps injury.
If you think the Jets will miss Bridges in attack, its worth remembering that between them, Haliti, Wheelhouse, Rooney and Song account for 13 goals this season and Rooney has scored twice against GCU this season.
The road trip hasn't been overly kind to Newcastle this season and it has lost four of its past five away from EnergyAustralia Stadium, including a 2-0 loss to Gold Coast at Skilled Park on January 13. In that match, Jason Culina and James Brown scored first half goals. Culina Sr will take heart from the Jets' two home wins over Gold Coast earlier in the season, 3-2 in December and 1-0 in August.
The pressure of finals football can see some funny results emerge and Newcastle's previous experience when it won the title in 2008 could prove useful with six players involved in Saturday's match having been part of the Grand Final squad two years ago. Conversely none of the Gold Coast players have tasted success in a Hyundai A-League Grand Final.
But given the way Gold Coast has performed at Skilled Park this season, it takes a clear advantage into this match and the onus will be on Newcastle to take the game to the home side.
Gold Coast United Squad: 1.Jess VANSTRATTAN (gk), 3.Michael THWAITE, 5.ROBSON, 7.Zenon CARAVELLA, 8.ANDERSON, 9.Shane SMELTZ, 10.Jason CULINA (c), 11.Charlie MILLER, 13.Bas VAN DEN BRINK, 14.Joel PORTER, 16.Kristian REES, 17.Matt OSMAN, 18.James BROWN, 19.Andrew BARISIC, 20.Scott HIGGINS (gk), 23.Steve FITZSIMMONS, 36.Dino DJULBIC *one to be omitted
In: Andrew BARISIC (promoted), Steve FITZSIMMONS (promoted)
Unavailable: Steve PANTELIDIS (suspended - 3 games), Tahj MINNIECON (hip injury - 1 week), Adama TRAORE (ankle injury - season), Daniel PIORKOWSKI (ankle injury - season)
Newcastle Jets squad: 1 Ben KENNEDY (gk), 2.Angelo COSTANZO, 3.Adam D-APUZZO, 4.Nikolai TOPOR-STANLEY, 5.Ljubo MILICEVIC, 6.Ben KANTAROVSKI, 7.Jin-Hyung SONG, 8.Matt THOMPSON (c), 9.Sasho PETROVSKI, 11.Tarek ELRICH, 12.Jobe WHEELHOUSE, 15.Sean ROONEY, 16.Jason HOFFMAN, 22.Kaz PATAFTA, 25.Labinot HALITI, 26.Ali ABBAS, 29.Mirjan PAVLOVIC, 30.Dion SHAW (gk) *two to be omitted
In: Nikolai TOPOR-STANLEY (returns from injury), Jin-Hyung SONG (returns from injury), Jobe WHEELHOUSE (returns from injury), Sean ROONEY (returns from injury), Labinot HALITI (returns from suspension)
Out: Michael BRIDGES (Quadriceps - 6 weeks)
Unavailable: Shaun ONTONG (Achilles - indefinite), Fabio VIGNAROLI (knee - indefinite), Marko JESIC (knee - indefinite), Neil YOUNG (gk) (face - 1-2 weeks)