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Herbert: Grand Final key battles

A-League
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 By Rob Brooks

Sydney derby takes centre stage while Tim Cahill says no to A-League

The two teams on top of the A-League table slipped up last week, making for an enticing round 20 in prospect. Meanwhile, the future of one of Australia's greats hangs in the balance.

Here are five things to watch out for this week:

1. Cahill cannot call A-League home

The shock departure of long-time Socceroos star Tim Cahill from his club Shanghai Shenhua this week sent Australian football fans into a frenzy. Indeed, having re-signed with the club only four months ago, the striker's exit was enough to surprise even the biggest Blue Devils fan.

Rumours over a potential move back to the A-League were quickly quashed by his agent with China again the likely destination and, to be honest, with good reason. Leaving his club after the February 2 cut-off date left Cahill ineligible to play for a club in his home country this season anyway. The Socceroos, meanwhile, have a number of crucial games over the coming months, and it's important the 36-year-old is match ready for those fixtures.

It now appears highly unlikely Cahill will ever appear in Australia's domestic club competition -- even with his level of athleticism, his number of seasons remaining in the game must be in question. For the most part that is a great shame as he would provide a spark to the league both on and off the pitch.

On reflection, though Cahill might not return to Australia's shores to play club football, his legend for the national team grows ever stronger. Perhaps if those at home saw him every week -- through good performances and bad -- that mystique would wear thin. As it stands, his legacy to the game in his homeland is arguably more valuable than the promise of a year or two playing in the A-League.

2. Victory endure punishing week

Astonishingly, an episode involving the ignition of flares at a stadium is again taking the limelight away from some sublime play on the field this week.

Melbourne Victory are the latest club to be hit with a AU$50,000 fine and a suspended three point punishment -- the same handed down to Western Sydney Wanderers last week. The club were strong in their condemnation of last week's incident in the Melbourne Derby, and one hopes the unpleasantness is put to rest by the time Kevin Muscat's side face Adelaide United at home this Friday.

Perhaps more damaging to the club in the long-term, though, will be Muscat's decision to cut Fahid Ben Khalfallah and Gui Finkler from his AFC Champions League squad. Finkler has already expressed his disappointment claiming it may force him out of the club. Perhaps most painful for Victory supporters will be the knowledge that perhaps the magnitude of the situation could have been lowered if they had signed just one Asian player as a foreigner -- a mistake they and Sydney FC, who cut Jacques Faty and Filip Holosko, may come to rue.

Sydney FC fans will be out in full force for the derby against Western Sydney on Saturday.

3. Pressure rises for Sydney Derby

It's difficult to know whether this week's continental axing will motivate or deflate Faty and Holosko. What is known, however, is that the Sky Blues are in desperate need of three points heading into Saturday's blockbuster Sydney Derby.

Graham Arnold's men have not won in their past four outings, and their task this week will not be easy against a Western Sydney Wanderers outfit determined to end their six-game derby winless streak. A win is a must for the second-placed Wanderers, who are aiming to keep pace with Brisbane Roar at the top of the standings.

For Sydney, a draw may be just about enough to keep seventh-placed Perth at bay for now. But Arnold will have one eye on a tricky Big Blue against the Victory next week, and knowing he has a legion of restless fans to please after a less than convincing January transfer window.

4. Perth primed for finals charge

Make no mistake, Perth Glory can still make the finals. Through a solid defensive platform laid by new recruit Shane Lowry, and some enterprising attack via the enigmatic playmaker Diego Castro, the West Australians are charging toward a top-six finish.

Currently three points behind Sydney FC, and a further point adrift of both Melbourne clubs, Perth must topple the pace-setting Brisbane Roar this Saturday night to keep pace.

Though there may be seven rounds of the regular season remaining after this weekend, momentum is not something to be taken for granted. While the Glory are hot, they must make their move.

Blake Powell
Wellington will hope to build on their 5-2 win over Western Sydney when they meet the Jets.

5. Jets and Phoenix play the long game

While the teams directly below Perth -- Newcastle Jets and Wellington Phoenix - are mathematically a chance of playing finals football, their clash this Saturday at Hunter Stadium is more about building for the future.

The Jets will be looking to put on another good display in front of their home faithful in front of what should be a lively crowd. Newcomers Steven Ugarkovic and Morten Nordstrand have added a new dimension to their play of late, and coach Scott Miller's aim will be to keep that process of improvement going.

Wellington, who have looked poor in recent times, stunned Western Sydney 5-2 last start, leaving Miller's counterpart Ernie Merrick with something to work with for the remainder of the campaign.

 

Rob Brooks is a former Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners media officer who joined the ESPN FC team in 2011. Twitter: @RobNJBrooks

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