MATCH PREVIEW: Top of the table battle at Our Paradise

Central Coast Mariners face a huge top of the table clash as Wellington Phoenix visit Our Paradise on Saturday evening, 5:30pm.

With a win, the Mariners will go back level on points with Wellington, and take top spot having won more games, with three games to play after Saturday. Whoever comes out on top on Saturday will take a huge step to securing the Premier Plate, which would be the first in Phoenix’s history or the first in 12 years for the Mariners.

Previous meeting and Players to Watch

After the two teams cancelled each other out in the previous meeting in New Zealand, drawing 0-0 on February 6th, they will meet again exactly two months on.

Mark Jackson described that clash as ‘two good teams with an identity, pitting their wits against each other’. Jacko was complimentary about Phoenix in general, praising in particular their defensive capabilities and structure.

That has been evident throughout the season, Giancarlo Italiano’s side boast the best defence in the A-League with just 23 goals conceded in 21 matches so far, two less than the Mariners, and key to that are ever-present trio Alex Paulsen, Scott Wootton and Fin Surman.

Wootton and Surman are two of only three outfield players, the other being Josh Nisbet, to have played every single minute of the Isuzu UTE A-League season so far.

Wellington’s centre-back pairing are key in both the defensive and build-up aspects of their game, they are the Phoenix’s top two for blocks per 90 and clearances per 90 as well as accurate passes per 90.

Highly-rated young goalkeeper Paulsen has had a strong breakout season for the Phoenix, keeping the second-most clean sheets in the league (9).

Whilst our stopper Danny Vukovic tops the Isuzu UTE A-League charts for clean sheets with 10, Paulsen leads both the goals prevented (13.0) and save percentage (81.3%) metrics.

One key man that Phoenix will be without for their trip to Our Paradise is midfielder Alex Rufer, as her serves a one match suspension for his straight red card against Sydney FC.

Rufer has made the joint-most tackles in the A-League (50), as well as the second-most interceptions (42) behind only Jacob Farrell (53), and also has the highest accurate long balls per 90 for Wellington. An influential presence in the heart of the midfield that they will be disappointed to be without for such a huge game.

Finally, the key man at the top of the pitch for Wellington is experienced forward Kosta Barbarouses. The New Zealand international is enjoying one of the best goalscoring seasons on his career with 11 so far. The 34-year-old also has the most assists of any Wellington player (4).

Last time out

The Mariners made a swift return to winning ways with a dramatic victory over Melbourne City. Max Balard was the Mariners hero with a 92nd minute winner, as the Mariners came from behind in the second half to win 2-1 and set-up a top spot showdown on Saturday.

Wellington’s previous game saw them edge Brisbane Roar at home, with Bozhidar Kraev scoring the only goal of the game two minutes in. Italiano’s men saw out the win despite being a man down for the closing stages after Rufer was sent off on 81 minutes.

Head to head

Mariners and Wellington have met 46 times in total and have an almost completely even record. Wellington have won 19, there has been nine draws and the Mariners have won 18.

Three of the previous four meetings have finished in a draw, with another tight affair expected in Gosford on Saturday.

The Mariners’ biggest ever winning margin against the Phoenix is 5-0, which they have actually achieved twice, in 2013 and almost two years ago to the day (April 5th 2022), when a 17-year-old Garang Kuol announced himself to the Mariners Family with a debut goal.