Saturday, October 19, 2013

Melbourne Heart vs Central Coast Mariners


Played: 9, Wins: Heart 1, Central Coast 7, Draws: 1

Previous encounter:

Central Coast 2-1 Heart, March 30, 2013

Past five matches:

Heart: DWLDL

Mariners: DLLDW

The game:

Melbourne Heart will have to get a result against their bogey team on Saturday if they are to keep their hopes alive of a record-breaking start to an A-League season. In their three seasons in Australia's national competition, Heart's longest run before their first loss of the campaign is just two matches, which they achieved a year ago. After a scoreless draw against derby-rivals Victory in the opening round, Heart's hopes of a long unbeaten streak to open the campaign will be severely tested by the reigning champions in Round Two.

Heart have only beaten Central Coast once in their history and have lost seven of the nine games between the two clubs. The Mariners started their defence of the A-League championship with a 1-1 draw against Western Sydney Wanderers last week and looked much better going forward than John Aloisi's Heart side. While Aloisi was thrilled with his team's defensive effort against Victory, it remains to be seen whether Heart can break open opposition sides that set out to defend.

In Heart's favour is the fact Mariners head coach Graham Arnold will want Central Coast to dominate the Red and Whites at AAMI Park, which could give the likes of David Williams and Mate Dugandzic chances on the counter-attack. Michael Mifsud will also be back from international duty, but Aloisi is reportedly unlikely to start the Maltese striker ahead of Golgol Mebrahtu.

The big issue:

Heart – Can Harry Kewell, if passed fit from a bad head injury, provide the critical final pass so Heart can score goals? And if not, who will perform the all-important playmaking role for the team in Aloisi's 4-2-3-1? In pre-season fixtures against A-League opposition, the Red and Whites scored just twice in four games. While Heart looked dangerous on the counter-attack against Victory, Aloisi's team struggled to create chances against a set defence.

Mariners – Arnold started Mile Sterjovski up front last week with natural striker Mitchell Duke, who scored the Mariners' goal, on the right wing. Matt Simon came off the bench in the second half but failed to take a shot, while last season's Golden Boot-winner Daniel McBreen remains on loan in China. So who is Central Coast's best option up front? It could be interesting to see Arnold pick Duke in the striker's role and play Nick Fitzgerald, McGlinchey and Marcos Flores behind the young Aussie.

The game breaker:

Marcos Flores – Up against the reigning A-League champions, expect Aloisi to tell Heart to defend at all costs again on Saturday. If the home side sit back and let Central Coast have the ball, the visitors will need their best passers to break open a defiant Heart. Enter Flores. The Argentine attacking midfielder looked much more comfortable in the navy and yellow of the Mariners last week than he did all of last season wearing the Big V in Melbourne. Flores created Central Coast's goal against the Wanderers and his neat passing could make the difference in Melbourne.

Prediction: Heart 0-2 Central Coast

The Mariners won all three games against Heart in their championship-winning season and kept the Red and Whites scoreless on two occasions and there is little to suggest much will be different this week. While Aloisi will hope his team can exploit space left by Central Coast as the visitors go looking for goals, the Mariners' defensive record from 2012/13 (they conceded just 21 goals in 27 games) indicates it will not be easy for Heart. Plus Arnold has too much quality in the final third at his disposal to expect the Heart to keep a clean sheet.

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