Preview: Sydney FC v Central Coast

If ever there was a time for the Sydney FC squad to stand up, surely it's now against the in-form Mariners.

Date: Sunday, January 8 Kick-off: 4pm AEDT Venue: Sydney Football Stadium

Head-to-head Played 20: Wins: Sydney FC 8, Central Coast 6, Draws: 6

Previous encounter Sydney FC 2, Central Coast 3, Sydney FC 2, November 19, 2011

History: The Mariners have closed the gap in the head-to-head record between the clubs of late, winning six (to Sydney's eight) of their 20 previous clashes.

Graham Arnold's side took the spoils when they met earlier this season in a 3-2 thriller at the SFS. Despite second half goals to Sky Blues duo Nicky Carle and Brett Emerton, strikes by Patrick Zwaanswijk, Michael McGlinchey and Troy Hearfield gave the visitors a much-deserved victory.

Form: Past five matches: Sydney FC: DWDLL Central Coast Mariners: WWWDW

It's all starting to go wrong for Sydney FC with just one win in their last five matches. Wednesday's 4-2 defeat against Wellington was the second time in six days they had conceded four goals and has raised serious questions about the team's defensive structure.

So hard to break down at the start of the season, Sydney's back four seem to have lost their composure and discipline. Unless they can fix those problems quickly, there's more pain ahead, especially against the in-form league leaders.

In contrast things just keep getting better and better it seems in Gosford. The mini-blip in the form of a 0-0 draw with Gold Coast on New Year's Eve was forgotten about on Big Wednesday as two goals from the departing Matt Simon handed the Mariners a comfortable 2-0 win over the out-of-sorts Melbourne Victory. The Mariners are six points clear at the top of the table and will be hard to catch on current form.

Match Committee: Sydney welcome back midfielder Karol Kisel after the Slovakian missed the Wellington debacle through suspension. But the main concern is over marquee man Nicky Carle who continues to miss action through a hamstring injury. The former Socceroos midfielder has missed the last three games and it's no coincidence the Sky Blues have failed to win any of those matches.

Lavicka promised changes after Wednesday's loss and don't be surprised if a few come in defence with Sebastian Ryall and Scott Jamieson chances of a recall.

The Mariners get influential defender Patrick Zwaanswijk back from suspension but the real problem surrounds who will replace Simon in attack. The East Gosford junior played his last game for the season on Wednesday night as he now joins Korea's Chunnam Dragons.

Just how much of a loss Simon is to the Mariners chances for the title will be revealed in coming months. Daniel McBreen and Troy Hearfield are the two players likely to vie for the vacant striker spot alongside Bernie Ibini.

Danger men: Brett Emerton - It should come as no surprise that Emerton is starting to show some of his best form since his switch to his preferred position on the right-hand side of midfield in recent weeks. The Socceroos star grabbed a goal against the Phoenix and set up Bruno Cazarine's second half strike. Emerton also scored one of the goals of the season in the loss to the Mariners in November and will need to produce something similar if Sydney are to cause an upset here.

Pedj Bojic - Graham Arnold has done a superb job in getting the best out of all his players since taking over on the Central Coast and Bojic is a prime example. The versatile defender never stops working and rarely lets his opponent through down his side. But Bojic has also improved his attacking game this season, chipping in with a couple of goals and supplying some important crosses down the right-hand side.

At the end of the day… If ever there was a time for the Sydney FC squad to stand up, surely it's now. The Sky Blues are all of a sudden in danger of slipping out of the top six on the back of their poorest run of form this season. It's not only the fact they have won just once in the last five games but also the manner of those performances. They have conceded 10 goals in their last three games and need to improve their defence immediately.

The only concern for the Mariners is the loss of Simon. He has been the attacking focal point for the side for the last couple of seasons and there's no doubt his departure will be hard to cover. But it gives an opportunity to the likes of McBreen and Hearfield to stake a claim for a full-time spot and there's nothing better than players with a point to prove.

Sydney should have 11 players on the field looking to do just that as they aim to give their home supporters something to cheer about for a rare occasion this season. They will play with plenty of pride, effort and desperation but it's unlikely to be enough to stop the high-flying Mariners.