Ward set for bench return

Nick Ward is expected to make his long-awaited return from a persistent calf injury off the bench against Perth on Saturday but the 23-year-old must pass a final fitness test ahead of the game.

Nick Ward is expected to make his long-awaited return from a persistent calf injury off the bench against Perth on Saturday but the 23-year-old must pass a final fitness test ahead of the game.

Ward has not played a Hyundai A-League match this year suffering several setbacks with the persistent injury. But with Carlos Hernandez out suspended, coach Ernie Merrick admits he is short of back-up attacking options and said it is well worth giving Ward some time against the Glory on Saturday night so long as he proves he is ready to go.

"He's trained hard all week and now he's having a lighter session, we are hoping he'll be available for a role off the bench," Merrick said.

"We've rescanned his injury to see if it's all clear. It's not completely clear but it's nearly all clear, and the way he's trained and the clinical assessment is that he's good to come off the bench, he wouldn't be available for more than half the game."

Merrick indicated Grant Brebner will fill Hernandez's attacking midfield role in Saturday's game, while Tom Pondeljak would probably move into a striking role alongside Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp. Continuing with his attacking theme, this season, Merrick said having Ward on the bench would give him more options.

"You always want attacking players on the bench, particularly for a home match, with a couple of key attackers out, it would be good to have Nick available. He played so well for us in the Asian Champions League and towards the end of last season, so we are keen to get him back," he said.

Should Ward fail to come up for the match, National Youth League team member Mathew Theodore could set for a call-up. It would be a rapid rise for the youngster who only made his first official appearance for the club in the youth league match against Queensland last week.

"I feel like Mathew Theodore is a good prospect for us, and we might give the youngster a run," he said.

The other selection worry for Merrick is replacing Michael Thwaite, who re-injured his ankle last week. The injury itself should only see the former Socceroo miss one week, but Merrick is not willing to run the risk of playing him.

"He could almost come up again for this week because the scans have shown he hasn't made the injury any worse, he's just inflamed it. Given we've got good back up players in defence, it's not worth taking a risk," he said.

Just how he replaces Thwaite is the difficult question. A like-for-like replacement would see Steven Pace come into the side, but he could choose to play a flat back four with Matthew Kemp and Evan Berger on the outside of Rody Vargas and Kevin Muscat. Merrick believes he has the flexibility to change if necessary and also has confidence in Kemp playing as part of a back three if needed.

"I'm confident Matthew Kemp can play as a full-back or one of the back three. At training, we've tried starting off with a three and then we went to four and back to three. The boys need to get used to changing formations."

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