Newcastle Jets will be out to claim a second Melbourne scalp in a fortnight when they host the lighter blue side of the city at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday night.
Ernie Merrick’s men enter the match on the back of a confidence-boosting 4-1 thrashing of Melbourne Victory, overcoming an early 1-0 deficit to seal the emphatic win against 10 men.
Dimi Petratos and Andrew Nabbout both continued their remarkable form, with the former orchestrating the win through midfield while makeshift striker Nabbout finished off two opportunities.
Three points against struggling Victory arrested Newcastle’s mini-form slump after they were humbled 2-1 by Sydney FC and usurped at the top of the table.
Meanwhile, City have lost ground at the top after starting like a house on fire and face a four-point crevasse between themselves and Saturday’s opponents.
They are winless in a month of football and are now facing internal crises, led by the departure of assistant coach Michael Valkanis during the week.
A crucial win against Newcastle would provide Warren Joyce with the perfect tonic to restore the fans’ confidence and bring City back in the top of the table reckoning.
Key Battle – Dimi Petratos vs Neil Kilkenny
Osama Malik’s one-week absence through suspension leaves the door ajar for Neil Kilkenny to finally start this season, and as one of the best holding-mifielders in the competition, Joyce’s decision to throw him in should be a no-brainer.
And if Kilkenny does come in, he will have what can only be described as the biggest job in the A-League right now: keeping a handle on the supremely confident Dimi Petratos.
The Jets forward is in the form of his life and barely looks like putting a foot wrong. Only last week he masterminded Victory’s downfall, finding gaps with relative ease.
But as well as having the capability to lock down the Socceroos hopeful, Kilkenny has the box to box prowess to keep Petratos accountable the other way and force him to shoulder some defensive work.
The former Leeds United man must win that battle early or the situation could get out of hand quickly.
Newcastle lose Danny Georgievski and Wayne Brown and are missing a host of other crucial names, so their depth will be tested once more. Merrick will face one dilemma with a makeshift right-back needed; does he return Jason Hoffman to a deeper role? He will instrumental against Victory further forward. Johnny Koutroumbis and Lachlan Jackson have been included in the Jets’ squad.
Newcastle Jets Expected XI (4-3-3): Moss (GK); Vujica, Boogaard, Topor-Stanley, Cowburn; Kantarovski, Ugarkovic, Petratos; Hoffman, Champness, Nabbout.
UPDATE: Cowburn was injured at training on Friday, meeting Koutroumbis could be in line to start.
City meanwhile will take an extended squad to the Hunter, including Braedyn Crowley, Daniel Arzani and forgotten man Ruon Tongyik. They must replace suspended Malik in midfield, opening up a place for Neil Kilkenny. Two players will need to be cut from the final squad.
Melbourne City Expected XI (4-2-2-2): Galekovic (GK); Muscat, Jakobsen, Schenkeveld, Jamieson; Brattan, Kilkenny; Kamau, Fitzgerald; Mauk, McCormack.
This fixture is dead even at nine wins apiece and three draws from 21 meetings.
City blew the Jets away at AAMI Park in March, thumping Newcastle 4-0. The match was just one chapter in the Jets’ sorry slump to the foot of the table at the tailend of last season.
It is a crucial three points on the line. A Jets win would see them race seven points clear of City and that seems on the cards. Newcastle’s flow of goals has accelerated while City’s has slumped, but perhaps most worrying for City is defence, an area Joyce honed in on. They have conceded seven in three games, and against a side with a firing attack, the signs are bleak.
Newcastle Jets 2 Melbourne City 1