Preview: Melbourne Victory v Sydney FC

The 2010 Hyundai A-League series kicks off on Thursday with a clash of the team with the best defence in the competition, against the team with the best attack.

Date: Thursday February 18 Kick-off: 7:30pm AEDT Venue: Etihad Stadium

Head-to-head Played 15: Melbourne Victory 5, Sydney FC 4, Draws 6

Previous Meeting Sydney FC 2, Melbourne Victory 0, February 2010, Sydney Football Stadium

Past five matches: Melbourne Victory: 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 Round 26: Melbourne Victory 2, North Queensland Fury 0, Etihad Stadium Round 27: Sydney FC 2, Melbourne Victory 0, Sydney Football Stadium

Sydney FC: Round 23: Sydney FC 0, Gold Coast United 1, Sydney Football Stadium Round 24: Newcastle Jets 1, Sydney FC 3, Energy Australia Stadium Round 25: Brisbane Roar 1, Sydney FC 0, Suncorp Stadium Round 26: Sydney FC 3, Perth Glory 2, Sydney Football Stadium Round 27: Sydney FC 2, Melbourne Victory 0, Sydney Football Stadium

Analysis: The 2010 Hyundai A-League series kicks off on Thursday with a clash of the team with the best defence in the competition, against the team with the best attack.

Sydney has already claimed bragging rights against Melbourne this season by winning the Premiers' Plate with its 2-0 win on Sunday edging it clear on the Hyundai A-League table by a solitary point.

But the real battle is for the championship and over the next five weeks the best team in the land will be determined.

Melbourne has never been beaten in a final, having defeated Adelaide on six separate occasions in 2007 and 2009.

Sydney has lost its past three finals and has only won one since its success in the first-ever Grand Final in 2006.

Both teams go into the finals series with injury concerns. Sydney lost Steve Corica with a hamstring injury last week, while Melbourne, which is already without Archie Thompson and Matthew Kemp, is without Robbie Kruse to an ankle injury.

However, Victory has been boosted by the return of inspirational skipper Kevin Muscat, who has missed the past two matches through suspension, while Evan Berger, Aziz Behich and Mate Dugandzic have been included in an extended squad.

Coach Ernie Merrick has predicted changes to the attacking set-up but the strike force is likely to be built around Nik Mrdja, who will get support from the likes of Tom Pondeljak, Nick Ward, Carlos Hernandez and Marvin Angulo.

Melbourne has played Sydney three times this season and has failed to breach the Sky Blues' notoriously tight defence.

As a consequence, Merrick has admitted that the team has spent a lot of time working on its front third this week in order to turn those half chances into goals.

The key will be to free up space in attack so Hernandez and his pals can work their magic and put some real pressure on Sydney's back four.

Last week, Terry McFlynn and Stuart Musialik filled space well and snuffed out the majority of Melbourne's forward thrusts.

Sydney's two goals came from turnovers, which were compounded by the goalscorers, Karol Kisel and John Aloisi, being given too much time and space to shoot.

It is doubtful that Melbourne's defence will let that happen again this week.

Melbourne's recent record at home is superb having won four straight at Etihad Stadium and five of its past six at the venue.

The for-and-against over that time is 18 goals scored and just two conceded.

There is something about the home crowd that makes Victory play its best football.

With its back to the wall, there will be no better opportunity to show its true character.

Melbourne Victory: 1.Mitchell LANGERAK (gk), 2.Kevin MUSCAT (c), 3.Mate DUGANDZIC, 5.Surat SUKHA, 6.Leigh BROXHAM, 8.Grant BREBNER, 11.Marvin ANGULO, 12.Rodrigo VARGAS, 13.Nathan ELASI, 15.Tom PONDELJAK, 16.Carlos HERNANDEZ, 17.Matthew FOSCHINI, 19. Evan BERGER, 20.Glen MOSS (gk), 22.Nick WARD, 23.Adrian LEIJER, 25.Aziz BEHICH, 29.Nik MRDJA *Two to be omitted

In: Aziz BEHICH (promoted from NYL), Evan BERGER (return from injury), Mate DUGANDZIC (return from injury), Kevin MUSCAT (return from suspension)

Out: Robbie KRUSE (ankle, season)

Unavailable: Billy CELESKI (knee, season), Matthew KEMP (knee, season), Archie THOMPSON (foot, 2 weeks)

Sydney FC: 1. Clint BOLTON (gk), 3. Stephan KELLER, 4.Simon COLOSIMO, 6. Karol KISEL, 7. Brendan GAN, 8. Stuart MUSIALIK, 9. John ALOISI, 12. Shannon COLE, 14. Alex BROSQUE, 15. Terry MCFLYNN, 22. Sung-Hwan BYUN, 26. Hayden FOXE 28, Sam MUNRO, 29. Iain RAMSAY

In: Sam Munro (promoted), Iain Ramsay (promoted)

Out: Steve Corica (hamstring - season)

Unavailable: Kofi DANNING (knee - season), Matthew JURMAN (foot - season), Sebastian RYALL (knee - 2 weeks)