You’ve got to love the cautious optimism radiating out of the Jets’ camp, all from the same page of company paper, about the team’s finals prospects this season.
I am normally a big fan of keeping a lid on anticipation and celebration, but Jets coach Ernie Merrick, well known for keeping a poker face, has ensured that none of his players deviate from script.
Let me go out on a limb here. At the risk of earning the wrath of Ernie, there is more chance of Barnaby winning Australian of the year than there is of the Jets missing the top four.
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For the Jets not to secure a home semi-final, both Melbourne Victory and Adelaide would have to win, given Newcastle’s strong goal differential, four of their last six matches and pick up at least one draw, while the Jets lost all six remaining games, to finish above them. All while Melbourne City are also winning three more of the remaining games than Merrick’s men.
In a 10-team league , those three teams are bound to meet somewhere, so they can’t all get maximum points every week. First game this weekend is the Melbourne derby. I rest my argument.
Realistically the Jets could not pick up another point and be highly likely/almost certain to finish top four, but that scenario won’t eventuate, because their form has been excellent for 21 rounds, and they clearly deserve to be sitting in second place.
Truth is the Jets are averaging almost two points per game this season, and anything remotely close to that output over the remaining games will secure second spot with games to spare.
And the cunning, canny Scotsman at the helm of the Jets knows that better than anyone, and has done for weeks.
Do you reckon a glass of quality red might possibly have hit the ceiling in the Merrick household when Adam Taggart punched his winning header for Perth over the line against Melbourne City in the 96th minute late Saturday night?
Sydney FC took care of the Wanderers comfortably on Sunday night, despite their midweek trip to China. Having dropped only 11 points in 21 games, they thoroughly deserve the minor premiership they will lift.
The top two teams in the land meet at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday, perhaps disappointingly in the scheduled early fixture, and the approach of the respective coaches to this game will be intriguing.
Sydney coach Graham Arnold has complete faith in his players, their understanding of his preferred system and style, and hates losing at any time.
He will juggle that thought with the busy schedule that FC face, and the very real possibility that his team will face the Jets at the big dance in early May.
Does he go with his best 11, trying to claim the premiers plate ASAP, strike a psychological blow against a likely challenger, and chase points records while maintaining momentum? Or does he rotate a few?
My hunch is he will go with his best available side, and try to make a statement. Almost everyone in football could name his perspective grand final starting 11, without hesitation, and such is Arnold’s faith in that group, he doesn’t mind one bit.
I will be fascinated to see how the Jets set up in this contest, and acknowledge that the result of the Melbourne derby the night before might have some influence on Merrick‘s approach.
Let’s assume that deep down Ernie feels that history and form suggest the very real likelihood of one finals game at home before a grand final appearance, most likely against Sydney FC.
I’d imagine in his mind Merrick has a plan to beat Sydney, a slightly different approach, with perhaps an element of surprise or shock.
Why? Because in a business-as-usual approach, Sydney have too many good players and will find a way.
Does Merrick risk exposing any such plan eight weeks or so away from its possible implementation? Has a plan been hatched yet?
Does he, assuming Melbourne City don’t get maximum points in the derby, just rev his best possible side up, and encourage them to have a red-hot go, using their normal plan and formation?
In my mind he has the wriggle room to do what he wants.
I am almost sure that two more wins and a draw from the final six rounds will secure second spot, and I think Merrick will have faith in the squad to pick up those points.
I guess my point is that Sydney’s record over the past two seasons suggests you are infinitely more likely to beat them once in a season, than twice. Would you try and save that moment, that performance, that plan for grand final day?
The other major factor to consider is the toll that playing on a hot, very humid Brisbane afternoon last Saturday on a pitch that had absorbed almost a foot of rain in the previous 48 hours exacts.
Certainly Sydney played a day later, but that was on a very wet surface in cooling rain. Those who have experienced those clammy conditions in Brisbane, where the heat is beaming down on you, but also extremely evident in the moisture coming up through the pitch, will tell you it can be very taxing.
You probably couldn’t wish for a better opponent, a one versus two clash, to coincide with celebrations of 40 years of football in various national competitions, and the 10-year anniversary of the region’s only national title, taking place this weekend.
The good news for Ernie is that if he hasn’t quite worked out how to beat Sydney FC, there will be 60 or 80 of the more outgoing attendees at the Men of football luncheon on Friday more than willing to explain their expert theories!
Don’t let that deter you from your role as guest speaker Ernie. I am sure you will be received by a very appreciative and happy crowd.
As will the players on Saturday, in what should be, regardless of possible player rotations, and perhaps a slight chance of coy tactical approaches, a game worthy of the two best teams in the A-League.