JETS coach Ernie Merrick says Saturday’s blockbuster clash with Sydney at McDonald Jones Stadium won’t make or break his team’s season.
While he admits a win against A-League leaders Sydney would be a priceless morale boost for second-placed Newcastle, Merrick says that realistically it will count for nothing if the two sides renew acquaintances in the finals.
“It is important,” Merrick told the Newcastle Herald.
“I feel like the more wins you have, the better.
“To know that you’ve beaten the top team in the league, who’ve only lost one game this year, and only lost one game last season, that would be a plus.
“But if we don’t beat them, that doesn’t mean that’s us finished, or ruined … failure isn’t the be-all and end-all.
“It’s a learning situation for the next game, and the next time we meet them.”
The Jets have not beaten Sydney in more than five years, an A-League record stretch that incorporates 15 games (12 losses, three draws).
But Merrick and a large proportion of his squad have been involved in only two of those fixtures – the 2-1 loss and 2-all draw at Allianz Stadium earlier this season.
In both cases, the Jets were left believing that they deserved better results, and that they were not far off celebrating a breakthrough win against the defending champions.
“We’ve had one loss, one draw, so if we can now make it one win for us and even up with them, if we meet them in the finals, [we’ll] go for it,” Merrick said.
Despite suggestions that he might be wise to keep his cards close to his chest, and save any tactical surprises for the play-offs, Merrick said winning on Sunday was his priority.
“We always play to win,” he said. “We don’t hold back in any game, home or away, or in finals. We’re always going to play the brand of football it takes to win games so, no, we won’t be holding back
“If they get anything from it, that’s fine.”
Merrick said his players had experimented with a “variety” of approaches at training this week and would adapt to whatever formation Sydney deployed.
“If you restrict yourself to one style of play, you’re too predictable,” he said. “So it’s a combination … we’ll have a plan to nullify their strengths and capitalise on our strengths. It’s all about finding their weaknesses, strategically.”
After last week’s 1-0 win against Brisbane, the Jets consolidated their already-firm grip on second rung on the competition ladder. They are 11 points behind Sydney with six preliminary rounds to play, and eight points ahead of third-placed Melbourne City.
They have locked up a play-off berth for the first time in eight years, but Merrick sees no need for his players to set their sights any higher than their original plan – a top-four berth.
“I don’t think we need to re-set our goals any higher,” he said. “We’ve set ourselves realistic goals and objectives, and that’s what we should aim for.”
After scans on his knee, Newcastle skipper Nigel Boogaard trained lightly on Wednesday but will need to pass a fitness test on Friday to take his place against Sydney. Merrick described Boogaard and his central-defensive partner Nikolai Topor-Stanley as “the best combination in the league”, but he will not take a gamble on the captain if there is any doubt.
“The two of them are important for us,” he said.
“But I’m not going risk that in this game and maybe jeopardise the finals.
“He trained today, so we’ll see how he pulls up on Friday.”
Lachlan Jackson and Ben Kantarovski would appear the likely replacements if Boogaard is ruled out.