Preview: Melbourne Victory v North Queensland Fury
Melbourne's defence of the Premiers' Plate sits in its own hands, with wins in its final two games of the season against North Queensland and Sydney enough for it to finish top for the third time in four years.
Date: Friday February 5 Kick-off: 8:00pm AEST, 7:00pm AEDT Venue: Etihad Stadium, Melbourne
Head-to-head Played 2: Wins: Melbourne Victory 1, North Queensland Fury 1. Draws: 0
Previous Meeting North Queensland Fury 1, Melbourne Victory 0, Dairy Farmers Stadium, December 2009
Past five matches: Melbourne Victory: Round 22: Newcastle Jets 3, Melbourne Victory 2, EnergyAustralia Stadium Round 23: Melbourne Victory 6, Perth Glory 2, Etihad Stadium Round 24: Melbourne Victory 2, Adelaide United 0, Etihad Stadium Round 19: Melbourne Victory 4, Wellington Phoenix 0, Etihad Stadium Round 25: Gold Coast United 1, Melbourne Victory 0, Skilled Park
North Queensland: Round 21: North Queensland Fury 1, Melbourne Victory 0, Dairy Farmers Stadium Round 22: Central Coast Mariners 1, North Queensland Fury 1, Bluetongue Stadium Round 23: Wellington Phoenix 3, North Queensland Fury 0, Westpac Stadium Round 24: North Queensland Fury 1, Brisbane Roar 1, Dairy Farmers Stadium Round 25: North Queensland Fury 2, Newcastle Jets 1, Dairy Farmers Stadium
Analysis: Melbourne's defence of the Premiers' Plate sits in its own hands, with wins in its final two games of the season against North Queensland and Sydney enough for it to finish top for the third time in four years.
But Victory will have to do it without two of its most influential players in skipper Kevin Muscat and marquee striker Archie Thompson. Muscat is serving a two-match ban, while Thompson's foot injury has proven worse then first thought and he will be out for at least a month.
Melbourne's depth has been tested plenty of times this season, especially early on, but the challenge of winning its final two matches without this pair is probably the biggest it has had all season.
The Fury travel to Etihad Stadium for the first time on Friday, having won their most recent game against Newcastle on Tuesday. Robbie Fowler and his team are still an outside chance of making the finals, but need to win both of their matches and hope other teams slip up.
At least Melbourne will know that both teams will be looking for a win. Given Fury's current situation there is no chance they will be content to settle for a draw and attacking football should prevail. Just who will be responsible for scoring the goals for the home side is hard to work out.
Robbie Kruse is still in doubt after injuring his shoulder in the 1-0 loss to Gold Coast last week, meaning that the attacking midfielders like Carlos Hernandez, Tom Pondeljak, Marvin Angulo and Nick Ward will be asked to push forward and provide the teeth in front of goal. However, Melbourne has signed Nik Mrdja until the end of the season and he could play on Friday.
Muscat's absence is likely to see a defensive shuffle up, with Matthew Kemp a chance to join Rody Vargas and stand-in captain Adrian Leijer in the centre of defence. Evan Berger could be called in to fill a wide defensive role. Aziz Behich should see some game time, while Nathan Elasi is also into the squad and is a chance to play if Kruse is unable to prove his fitness.
North Queensland has a couple of key players out injured as well, with Dyron Daal ruled out with a hamstring injury and Ufuk Talay unable to back-up from Tuesday's match. Jason Spagnuolo and Osama Malik have been called in to Ian Ferguson's squad.
While Fowler has drawn much of the attention for the Fury this year, it's worth noting that he hasn't scored since November. Since that time, the Fury have scored nine goals with six different goalscorers. They can no longer be accused of relying on one man to do much of their attacking and the performances of the likes of Terry Cook in recent matches indicates that they have plenty of quality players at their disposal.
The two matches between the teams this year have been dour affairs, but maybe that's a sign of the effect of the Townsville heat. Melbourne battled to a 1-0 win in the first, before the Fury reversed that result in late December.
There will be a feeling of the need for atonement for that disappointing result and the lure of a spot in the top two will give an under-manned Victory side plenty of incentive. Ernie Merrick believes he has the depth to get the result he needs here, and the challenge has been thrown down to his lesser lights.
Melbourne Victory: 1.Mitchell LANGERAK (gk), 6.Leigh BROXHAM, 7. Matthew KEMP, 8.Grant BREBNER, 12.Rodrigo VARGAS, 13.Nathan ELASI, 15.Tom PONDELJAK, 16.Carlos HERNANDEZ, 17.Matthew FOSCHINI, 19. Evan BERGER, 20.Glen MOSS (gk), 21.Robbie KRUSE, 22.Nick WARD, 23.Adrian LEIJER (c), 25.Aziz BEHICH, 26.Marvin ANGULO *one to be omitted
In: Nathan ELASI (promoted), Matthew FOSCHINI (promoted)
Out: Kevin MUSCAT (suspended - 2 weeks)
Unavailable: Billy CELESKI (knee - season), Mate DUGANDZIC (knee - 2 weeks), Steven PACE (abdomen - indefinite), Archie THOMPSON (foot - 4 weeks)
North Queensland Fury squad: 1.Paul HENDERSON (GK), 2.Robbie MIDDLEBY, 3. Chris TADROSSE, 7.Jason SPAGNUOLO, 9.Robbie FOWLER (c), 11.David WILLIAMS, 13.Beau BUSCH, 14.Chris GROSSMAN, 16.Paul KOHLER, 17.Osama MALIK, 19.James DOWNEY 20.Justin PASFIELD (GK), 23.Rostyn GRIFFITHS, 26.Matt SMITH, 27.Terry COOKE.
In: Jason SPAGNUOLO (promoted), Osama MALIK (promoted)
Out: Dyron Daal (hamstring injury), Ufuk TALAY (not selected)
Unavailable: Jacob TIMPANO (hamstring 2 - 4 weeks), Scott WILSON (knee - indefinite), Shane STEFANUTTO (knee - indefinite), Jeremy BROCKIE (broken leg) James ROBINSON (knee- indefinite), Karl DODD (knee - indefinite).