AUSTRALIA’s two biggest clubs have opened up a mini league of their own as we enter the second half of the 2016-17 A-League season.
Undefeated Sydney FC lead the way with a seven-point gap on Melbourne Victory, who are another five clear of third-placed Brisbane Roar.
Melbourne City round out a top four that will be difficult to dislodge, with Perth Glory the closest challenger six points back.
The outliers have a chance to gain some ground this weekend as four of the bottom five take on the finals favourites.
Perth Glory vs. Wellington Phoenix
6pm local time – Thursday, January 5, 2017 – NIB Stadium, Perth
Perth Glory – $2
Draw – $3.80
Wellington Phoenix – $3.40
Who would want to be a New Zealand team playing in an Australian domestic competition?
The Phoenix have travelled over 5,250km for Thursday night’s must-win clash in Perth.
If they lose, they may have to wave goodbye to whatever slim finals hopes they might harbour.
But Wellington are undefeated in four games since Ernie Merrick’s departure and now have a new threat up front with the return of Shane Smeltz.
The Kiwi striker’s first task will be to take down his former employers.
The Glory are now six games without a win, although they have managed well-earned points against Sydney FC and Melbourne City.
Young midfield star Brandon Wilson will miss through suspension, while Dino Djulbic (suspended) and Mitch Oxborrow (foot) are also unavailable.
Perth won 2-0 when these two met earlier in the season and should fancy their chances again, having lost to the Phoenix only twice in nine games since 2013.
Glory to score exactly two goals – $3.25
Roy Krishna Phoenix first goalscorer – $4
Melbourne City vs. Western Sydney Wanderers
7:50pm local time – Friday, January 5, 2017 – AAMI Park
Melbourne City – $1.85
Draw – $3.85
Western Sydney – $3.90
City need to start registering wins if they have any designs on catching the top two.
They have lost only once – to Melbourne Victory – in their last eight games, yet have picked up only three wins.
Their defensive record is the worst of the leading quartet and they haven’t kept a clean sheet since round one.
Things could improve this weekend with Michael Jakobsen, Osama Malik and Manny Muscat all in line to return.
The Melburnians are still without Argentine forward Fernando Brandan, who has one week left on his suspension.
Wanderers are desperate to turn things around after four games without a victory.
The last three of those were draws, however, and a win at AAMI Park would put them right in finals contention.
The suspended Dimas joins Shannon Cole and Brendan Santalab on the sidelines, while goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne has crossed the bridge to join Sydney FC.
The good news for Western Sydney is their track record against Melbourne’s second club.
In 13 meetings since their foundation, the Sydneysiders have lost to City (or their predecessors, the Heart) only twice.
Draw/both teams to score – $4.33 at Sportsbet
Bruno Fornaroli first goalscorer – $4.20
Brisbane Roar vs. Newcastle Jets
4:35pm local time – Saturday, January 7, 2016 – Suncorp Stadium
Brisbane Roar – $1.60
Draw – $4.30
Newcastle Jets – $5
The Roar have a score to settle – a 4-0 defeat, to be precise.
That was the shock result when they travelled to the Hunter Valley back in October.
Things have improved for Brisbane since then, although their 10-game unbeaten run came to an end last week at the hands of Sydney FC.
Former Socceroo star Brett Holman is still missing with knee trouble, but otherwise the Queenslanders have a full squad available.
The same cannot be said for Newcastle.
Ivan Vujica is the latest member of an injury list that includes Daniel Alessi, Ben Kantarovski and long-serving goalkeeper Ben Kennedy.
The Jets had put together three solid weeks without defeat until crumbling against Melbourne Victory last time out.
Although they sit seventh in the A-League table, a good result here will keep them in finals contention.
History is against the Novocastrians, however, as the Roar hadn’t lost in seven meetings with them up until this season.
Brisbane Roar 4-0 correct score – $23
Jamie Maclaren first goalscorer – $5
Adelaide United vs. Melbourne Victory
7:20pm local time – Saturday, January 7, 2017 – Coopers Stadium
Adelaide United – $3.30
Draw – $3.60
Melbourne Victory – $2.10
The Victory are on a roll.
Since losing to Sydney FC at the start of November, they have won six out of seven and drawn the other.
Kevin Muscat’s men have saluted in each of their last four, smashing home some 13 goals in the process.
Kiwi star Marco Rojas has discovered a rich vein of form with four goals in his last three appearances.
There is also the ever-present threat of Besart Berisha – the league’s top scorer with 10 goals for the season.
All that is quite a handful for the reigning A-League champions.
Adelaide are rooted to the foot of the table with only a single win from 13 attempts in 2016-17.
Marcelo Carrusca’s return from injury will give them a boost, while Ben Warland is also back in the matchday squad.
But the Reds will struggle to cope if Victory breach their defence at any stage, as they have scored only one goal in their last four games.
They also have a poor record against Melbourne, who haven’t lost in Adelaide since 2013.
Melbourne Victory/over 2.5 goals – $3
Besart Berisha first goalscorer – $7
Central Coast Mariners vs. Sydney FC
5pm local time – Sunday, January 8, 2017 – Central Coast Stadium
Central Coast – $7
Draw – $4.33
Sydney FC – $1.40
Could the Mariners be the shock underdogs who end Sydney’s golden run?
They ended a run of four consecutive defeats last week with a gutsy 2-2 draw against Melbourne City.
But this is a different task altogether for a side that would be bottom but for Adelaide’s woes.
They will have to tackle the league ladders without Jacques Faty, who has a hamstring issue, but the wonderfully named Storm Roux is back from injury to bolster the back line.
Do we even need to say anything about Sydney?
Unless some inexplicable misfortune befalls them, they should walk to the premier’s plate.
They have lost Matt Jurman, who has moved abroad, while captain Alex Brosque is serving a ban.
The Sky Blues should have the cattle to cover those absentees, however, and will be looking forward to a match-up that has brought them six wins and 24 goals in the past three seasons.
Sydney FC -2.0 handicap – $3.75
Filip Holosko first goalscorer – $6
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