JETS coach Ernie Merrick has no doubts that Lachlan Jackson would be a regular at most A-League clubs.
The towering stopper now has five games to live up to the coach’s estimation.
What’s more, a Jets championship could hinge on it.
With skipper Nigel Boogaard (fractured leg) until at least the finals, the just turned 23-year-old will partner Nikolai Topor-Stanley in the heart of defence, starting with Saturday’s battle against Wellington Phoenix at QBE Stadium in Auckland.
Jackson last covered for Boogaard in the 2-1 loss to Sydney FC in round 14 – a match in which he was turned inside-out by Milos Ninkovic in what was a contender for the goal of the year.
“He has never let us down off the bench and is ready to go now,” Merrick said.
“Lachlan would probably be a regular in most other teams in the league. This is a good chance for him to show what he is capable of. Fortunately, Nigel didn’t require surgery and is straight into rehab. At least we have five weeks to reshape that backline, if he is not going to be there.”
Boogaard and Topor-Stanley have been the best defensive pair in the league.
Between them they average 5.9 clearances per game, 6.4 intercepts, 8.8 break-ups and 1.1 blocks – all league highs for a combination.
Jackson, standing 196cm, is strong in the air and extremely quick for a big man.
However, he lacks the experience and game sense of 2015-game veteran Boogaard.
Asked what areas Jackson needed to improve, Merrick said: “It is just his game play. Gaining experience and understanding deceptive movements – little quick runs – that he has to be aware of.
“We did some work on holding our line in the penalty box, dropping off and pushing out again. When we clear, pushing up to the halfway line.”
Ben Kantarovksi returns in front of the back and adds more starch to the defence.
Roy Krishna, Nathan Burns and teenage sensation Sarpreet Singh lead a Phoenix attack that has mixed form in front of goals. Their return of 25 goals is equal eighth, in front of only the Mariners (23) and Adelaide (24).
However, they did put three past the Jets in an upset win at McDonald Jones Stadium on January 23 – Newcastle’s last loss.
“Phoenix played really well and deserved their win at the end,” Merrick said of the defeat.
“Really it was about goal-scoring and finishing. What counted was that they took their opportunities. We have gotten better at that. As the league is progressing we are taking our chances and scoring goals from all sorts of angles.
“If we create that many chances this time I feel we will put them away.”
The Jets attack has lost two lethal weapons with the departure of Andrew Nabbout (10 goals) to Japan and suspension to Roy O’Donovan (7).
Pato Rodriguez and Joe Champness come into the side and marquee midfielder Ronny Vargas makes his long-awaited return from a broken ankle.
“We are heading for finals football and is about us preparing for finals football,” Merrick said.
“Our expectation is to win all our remaining games, or at least play a style of football where we can take all three points. You have no other option when you get into finals.”
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