IF the Newcastle Jets hope to challenge for the A-League title this season, their next two games could be make or break.
At AAMI Park on Thursday, second-placed Newcastle (33 points) play third-placed Melbourne City (29 points), followed by fourth-placed Melbourne Victory (26 points) at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday week.
If the Jets can keep their Victorian rivals at bay, it would be a huge step towards securing a top-two berth in the play-offs.
And while Newcastle coach Ernie Merrick insists he will be satisfied just to steer last season’s wooden spooners into the top four, history suggests that everything is weighted in favour of teams who finish either first or second after the preliminary rounds.
In the 12 previous seasons of the A-League, only twice have sides reached the grand final from outside the top two.
They were Central Coast, who finished third in the inaugural campaign, and Perth Glory, who were third in 2011-12.
Both subsequently lost their respective grand finals.
Hence the challenge for the Jets – especially after last week’s upset 3-2 loss to cellar dwellers Wellington at home – is to stand their ground and defend the position they have held for most of the season.
“We look at our games not one at a time, but in groups, and we’re going to play the third and the fourth team,” Merrick said. “They’re important games, and it’s the right time of the year for us to be playing them, leading into the last third of the season.”
Asked if the points table would provide his troops with motivation, Merrick replied: “I wouldn’t put the boys under that much pressure.
“I think if we stay in the top four, that’s a good outcome.
“Anything nearer the top is great, but top four is what we’re aiming for.
“Initially it was the top six. They [the players] wanted to be in the top four and they’re playing terrific football … we’re in a good position. Top four, if we stay there, is good for us.”
Merrick said last week’s defeat was disappointing but, in hindsight, perhaps a timely result for Newcastle.
“I’d rather that occurred now than closer to the finals, or in the finals,” he said. “You’re always going to lose a game here and there, especially if we’re lighter on in numbers or we don’t take our chances.”
Merrick said the main lessons his players learned against Wellington was that they “resorted to the long ball a bit too much” and did not provide enough support for Dimi Petratos when he was man marked.
Merrick is weighing up reinstating Ben Kantarovski, who returned from a back injury last week off the bench, to the starting side.
He has also included Australian under-23 representatives Joe Champness, Nick Cowburn and Riley McGree in his squad, the latter of whom is set to make his debut for Newcastle, most likely as substitute.
“We’ve got a pretty fresh squad, which is just what we need, given the pretty short turnaround and the number of games we’ve had over the past few weeks,” Merrick said.
There was no place for Irish striker Roy O’Donovan, who is close to returning from a long-term groin injury.
Merrick said O’Donovan was ahead of schedule but added: “I don’t think he’s ready until he trains really hard for a full week.”
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