The Roar’s A-League Men tips and predictions: Round 26 – the jostle for finals positions is on in earnest


Here we are folks, the end of the road when it comes to the A-League home and away season for 2023/24.

What a round to savour, with finals positions almost certain to change and Western Sydney hoping to be the team that sneaks into the top six at the eleventh hour.

Brisbane and Adelaide meet in a now-pointless fixture on Friday night, before the Mariners seek a temporary spot at the top of the ladder against the Jets on Saturday.

The Phoenix can counter that with a win against the Bulls, with the prime-time blockbuster between the Victory and Wanderers looking like a crucial fixture in the grand scheme of things.

Sydney host Perth on Sunday afternoon and Melbourne City can lock up their finals spot with a win against Western United soon after. If the Mariners manage a second win of the round against Adelaide on Wednesday, the Premiership will be theirs.

Good luck with your tips for the round and be sure to enter them in the sheet below and have a final say in the home and away season as a member of the voice of the people.

Here is the way the panel sees all the action unfolding across the final weekend of play prior to the semi-finals.

Texi Smith

Brisbane, Central Coast, Wellington, Victory, Sydney, City, Central Coast

The weekend kicks off with a game that could decide who plays in Darwin in the Australia Cup qualifiers in pre-season. Adelaide’s trip to Central Coast was aborted last weekend, Brisbane couldn’t beat a ten-man Melbourne Victory that they dominated even with eleven.

The heart says Brisbane, the head says Adelaide and the first half will give no clues as to who will take the points, Jay O’Shea going closest with a stinging shot that hits the bar.

The paltry home crowd, rattling around in the chasm of Suncorp Stadium is at full voice moments into the second half though as Henry Hore slides home at the far post, and when Nikola Mileusnic jinks through to make it two, the noise is as good as we’ve had this season.

With the Wellington Phoenix game kicking off simultaneously, the final-day drama will not quite be Sergio Aguero, Troy Deeney or Michael Thomas, but there will be twists and turns along the way.

Central Coast’s inter-zonal Asian Champions League quest will have given them a tough assignment midweek and they will need to refocus very quickly for the trip up the M1 to McDonald Jones Stadium.

A dramatic early sending-off for Dan Hall will shape the first half and Christian Theoharous will be thrust on to provide an outlet.

With the visitors growing increasingly nervous as the second half wears on and the scores locked at a stalemate, it is a moment of magic that settles the game; Ryan Edmondson sliding home at the near post to sneak a win for the ten men and put them a step closer to Premiership glory.

Kosta Barbarouses celebrates a Wellington goal with Tim Payne. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Wellington Phoenix entertain a weakened Macarthur FC with a chance to secure the Premiership in front of their own fans.

Macarthur’s quest for a home elimination final hangs in the balance as Alex Rufer and Bozhidar Kraev score a goal a-piece in a one-sided first-half in front of a bumper crowd.

Livewire Charles M’Mombwa pulls a goal back to heighten the senses of the home fans, and when a late penalty is awarded as Valere Germain milks a foul, hands are on heads in the bare-chested Wellington faithful.

In true A-League drama though, Alex Paulsen atones for his own goal last week and leaps to push Germain’s spot kick around the post and Phoenix head up the other end in the dying embers of the game to seal it through Mohamed Al-Taay.

By the time Melbourne Victory kick off on Saturday night at home to Western Sydney Wanderers, they will be safely secured in third spot. Will they take their foot off the gas and make their cross-town rivals and fellow tenants Melbourne City battle for a finals spot?

Absolutely no chance. A big crowd, with plenty of visitors from Western Sydney, will be present at AAMI Park to see Victory round off their season in style.

Milos Ninkovic. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Milos Ninkovic pulls on the black and red for one last goodbye, and his trickery sets up an opener for form player Dylan Pierias to romp through and score.

An anxious home crowd is then forced to wait until the 85th minute for Bruno Fornaroli’s overhead kick to bring the scores level, and Daniel Arzani will weave through to score a minute later to turn the game completely on its head.

Marko Rudan is pelted with rubbish as he nears the Wanderers fans and the evening ends with Ninkovic walking down the tunnel in tears.

With everything to play for, an unusual Sunday afternoon kick-off sees a meagre crowd at Allianz Stadium to end the regular season.

Mustafa Amini is back in Sydney and looking to get one over his former employers, but the West Australians will need to shore up a leaking defence to deal with the speed and agility of Jaiden Kucharski and Nathan Amanatidis in the makeshift Sydney attack.

There’s no sign of Fabio Gomes after Sydney’s poor defeat last weekend. Robbie Mak taps home unchallenged on five minutes, and by the 20-minute mark, Sydney is cruising, Luke Brattan smashing in a shot from distance and Hayden Matthews heading in from a corner.

Perth is marshalled well by a defence bolstered by the returning anti-heroes of the failed Olympic campaign, and the second half is a procession, the Cove enjoying a day in the sun.

Melbourne City’s indifferent season draws to a close with a total dead-rubber against Western United. With finals secured, City can flex their muscle up front, but they are shot-shy today and Western United do all the probing.

Lachie Wales stuns the AAMI Park crowd with a miss-hit shot that deflects off a defender into the net, and United are well worth their lead at the break.

Tolgay Arslan eventually gives the crowd a lift with a thumping finish to equalise midway through the second half, and Steven Ugarkovic finishes the job, passing the ball into the net after a half-cleared corner.

Adelaide United are the fodder next Wednesday night, and they have a party to spoil.

It’s Nestory Irankunda’s farewell and he is thrown straight in. The visitors look slick and carefree in their first-half display, and the nerves start getting to the Central Coast Mariners as the game wears on without the killer goal.

Nestory Irankunda celebrates after completing his hat trick. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Brian Kaltack’s header is clawed off the line by James Delianov and by the 60th minute the home team are making panicked substitutions to try and turn the game in their favour.

Hiroshi Ibusuki rises to head home but is penalised for a push, but the cork is popped when Josh Nisbet fires in a cross for Miguel Di Pizio to get the vital goal.

Stuart Thomas

Adelaide, Central Coast, Macarthur, Victory, Sydney, City, Central Coast

Something tells me this will be a wacky and zany final round of matches. I’ll keep picking against the Roar to start the action, in what looks like a game where both sides will have minds on the end-of-season trip.

The Mariners will complete the first part of their two-fold challenge when they topple the Jets in the F3 Derby and Macarthur will surprise yet again when they beat the Phoenix in New Zealand. Premiership done and the Mariners romping towards the grand final.

Melbourne Victory will beat Western Sydney, based on the fact that Marko Rudan’s team does not deserve to feature in finals, whilst Sydney will belt Perth after an awful display last week from which they simply must respond.

Could Melbourne City drop three points and let the Wanderers sneak in should they manage to beat Victory? No way, too many balls in the air for that to happen.

City will be in the finals and the Mariners will be clear on top after they belt the Reds next Wednesday night.

He just unleashed the ball into the top left for @MelbourneCity and there was nothing @wufcofficial‘s Defense could do about it!
It’s 1-1, Melbourne City & Western United. Watch it live on 10 Bold!
????????????: #WUNvMCY

— 10 Football (@10FootballAU) January 7, 2024

Andrew Prentice

Brisbane, Central Coast, Wellington, Victory, Sydney, City, Central Coast

There are a thousand caveats around this round’s tipping, not least the dramas surrounding the Mariners, both on and off the pitch. But first to a dead rubber in Brisbane on Friday night where two teams will take stock after disappointing seasons that were full of initial promise.

Adelaide blew their slim finals chances with consecutive late meltdowns two weeks ago, and the enforced week off to think about it all in the wake of Central Coast’s stranding in the Middle East won’t have helped.

Brisbane named their 27th new coach of the season this week with incumbent Ruben Zadkovich handed the ringmaster’s whip and chair to get the Roar into shape. Purely on home-ground advantage, I’m tipping a Roar win.

Here is where it’s going to get spicy. An F3 derby with a premiership at stake. A draw would be enough for the Mariners to keep the top spot bid alive with their game in hand.

That, coupled with a Phoenix win, would mean they’d have to win the midweek fixture against Adelaide to finish level on points and win the premiership based on a superior number of games won (for the real fans, the Mariners also have a better goal difference).

The Mariners have been in great form but their travel dramas getting home from their AFC Cup clash, coupled with their second leg, tripled with the standing down of top scorer Angel Torres, are painting an unsteady picture for this match.

But what the hell, I’m tipping them anyway. The Jets would love to play spoiler and did that to an extent last week. A 1-0 win for the Mariners in this one.

Newcastle’s Apostolos Stamatelopoulos celebrates a goal with Lucas Mauragis. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Macarthur beat Sydney with nine players left on the park last week, including a now-rescinded red card that calls the whole VAR review of yellow cards into question. Sensible observers could see that Ivan Vujica’s challenge on Joe Lolley warranted no more than a free kick.

Even Lolley himself was dumbfounded. Hopefully, it stays at 11 v 11 on Saturday in Wellington, as the Phoenix cap their season with a win.

Playing at the same time as the Mariners would have meant neither team has an advantage in the race to first place, but the postponement last week has changed that. Wellington to win and make the Mariners work even harder next week.

Western Sydney’s season is hanging by a thumbnail, and it will terminate at AAMI Park on Saturday night unless they claim all three points against Victory. I just can’t see how they’ll do it.

They will be bolstered by the return of Olyroo personnel but they’re on a three-game losing streak, which seemed unlikely after their form upswing at the start of the month.

Bruno Fornaroli will want to get among the goals and give himself a shot at the Golden Boot, and the Wanderers have been defensively inviting.

Ironies abound; a Victory win will ensure their derby rivals City a finals berth and a game against them in Week 1 of the playoffs.

Tony Popovic will guide Victory to victory at the expense of the club he helped build. Alannis Morrisette is warming up the vocal cords.

Sydney FC will be kicking themselves (if not the opposition) over their inability to score against a nine-man Macarthur. They now need to win and hope Wellington rolls the Bulls to get a home final, most likely against said Bulls.

Perth secured the unwanted wooden spoon last week – no mean feat in a competition that includes a Western United side who were beyond awful for two-thirds of the season.

Adam Taggert still has the motivation of a golden boot, but it’s hard to see anything but a Sky Blues win on Sunday.

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It might end up being a superfluous outing for Melbourne City if their near-neighbours and co-tenants do the business the day before.

So here’s another caveat to the tip because if Aurelio Vidmar decides to rest most of his squad, that might tip the balance Western’s way. Assuming he doesn’t, and assuming it means something, City will win this comfortably and carry some serious form into the finals.

The Mariners have secured their AFC Cup Final place with a brilliant 3-0 win over Abdysh Ata in the second leg of their Zone final. By the time they get to this rescheduled midweek game against old adversary Adelaide, they could be playing for the Premier’s Plate. Or they could’ve already won or lost it.

That makes tipping this game like facing a Craig Goodwin penalty blindfolded. My tip is based on the Mariners having the title to play for, and they have had such an incredible run since losing their first four league games, that it seems inconceivable they would slip up.

However, if the title is already decided either way (which will happen if the Phoenix lose and the Mariners win or vice-versa on the weekend), Mariners coach Mark Jackson will be fully justified in resting his entire squad and signing the Umina United Eagles All-Age squad to one-game contracts (and those lads CAN play, believe me!) – I’m tipping the Mariners on the basis that they’ll have a title to play for.



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