Melbourne derby headlines A-League as Western Sydney pay price for fans
On-field intrigue has again paired with off-field drama in the A-League this week. Here are five things to watch out for in what promises to be a dramatic round 19:
1. More than just pride on the line
There is no doubt the Melbourne derby has developed into one of the most eagerly anticipated battles on the A-League calendar, and this week's latest instalment is no exception.
That Socceroo defender Alex Wilkinson has recently opted to sign for Melbourne City over Melbourne Victory and will likely make his debut on Saturday evening only adds further spice to the mix.
However, while fans and pundits alike fawn over the red-hot atmosphere and sense of occasion, both coaches will have their sights firmly fixed on the valuable three points on offer.
City critically came up empty-handed away to eighth placed Newcastle Jets last weekend, and Victory have not won in their past two starts. At this end of the season, and with both clubs locked on 28 points, there is so much more on the line than pride.
A loss for either side -- who sit six points behind the league leading Western Sydney Wanderers -- could spell the end of title aspirations.
2. Wanderers hit by off-field trouble
Sadly, the issue of flares has once again dominated headlines in Australia this week. This attention follows an incident during Melbourne Victory's 2-2 draw at home to Western Sydney Wanderers, as up to 20 flares were lit around the travelling supporter bay.
Given the struggle which active supporters -- and subsequently all other fans -- endured earlier this campaign through boycotts and protests for rights, it seems madness that this has now raised its head. If found, the persons responsible, therefore, have no-one to blame for their impending punishment but themselves.
Critically, this sorry situation could also cost Western Sydney points in the future as the club have been given a suspended three-point penalty, along with a AU$50,000 fine. The club, and their true supporters, will be hoping that another incident does not occur this season, which may ultimately cost them top spot on the table -- and subsequently the title.
It's been a wonderful season to date. It would be an awful shame if it was remembered for being decided by a minority of misbehaving spectators.
3. Reds out but not down
It was a classic case of missed opportunities for Adelaide United midweek as they bowed out of the AFC Champions League (ACL) in the final qualification stage.
Their 2-1 defeat at home to Chinese Super League outfit Shandong Luneng will come as a blow to coach Guillermo Amor, but the Reds remain the most in-form club in the A-League.
There is no doubt Adelaide were desperate to return to the continental stage -- they reached the 2008 ACL final against Gamba Osaka -- however, their premature exit may be a blessing in disguise.
Having endured a slow start to the season, the Reds are now firmly entrenched in the top six, with a finals berth now probable. There is now no distraction stopping the likes of Marcelo Carrusca, Sergio Cirio and Tarek Elrich from eyeing Grand Final silerware.
That mission starts with a very winnable game away to bottom side Central Coast Mariners this Sunday, even if ex-Liverpool winger Sergio Garcia may start for the home team.
4. Balancing act begins for Sky Blues
As Adelaide depart the Asian stage, the journey is just about to begin for Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory via the group stage.
For the Sky Blues, their squad is about to be tested for depth after the January sale of left-back Alex Gersbach to Rosenborg BK. This transfer will require the versatile Rhyan Grant to occupy a fullback role for the remainder of the season, giving coach Graham Arnold fewer utility players to call upon to provide cover elsewhere.
It comes as ideal timing, then, that captain Alex Brosque returns from long-term injury this week. The forward is expected to start Saturday's clash with Perth Glory on the bench.
The former Socceroos' presence could be the lift Sydney -- who are winless in their past three outings -- are in need of during the busiest time of year.
5. Brisbane bank on Borrello
Second placed Brisbane Roar continue to impress this term, with their latest piece of work off the field also catching the eye.
Wednesday's retention of striker Brandon Borrello to a new two-year deal appears very astute. The 20-year-old has scored five times this season, which made him a target for several other A-League clubs.
Brisbane's ability to keep one of their youth products, amid such pressure, is a sure sign coach John Aloisi is planning as intelligently for the future as he has for this season.
Borrello and his Roar teammates will be eager to celebrate on Friday night against Newcastle Jets, but must be wary as the Novocastrians sprang a surprise last week to topple Melbourne City 2-1.
Buoyed by this win in front of the best atmosphere at Hunter Stadium in some years, the Jets will have their sights on another upset to spoil Borrello's party.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks