A-League: Mariners to host Phoenix in top-of-the-table battle

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Central Coast coach Mark Jackson has tipped the Mariners to rise to the occasion of Saturday night’s top-of-the table clash against a Wellington Phoenix side that can take a huge step towards the A-League premiership with a win in Gosford.

If the first-placed Phoenix are victorious at Industree Group Stadium, the Kiwi outfit will move six points clear in the race for the Premier’s Plate.

And with just three rounds of the regular season remaining after this weekend, the Phoenix would have to flop badly to be knocked off top spot.

However, if the Mariners can win at home, they will draw level on points with the Phoenix and ensure a thrilling battle for the premiership.

“That’s the challenge we have, but it’s a challenge we want to rise to,” Jackson said.

“Players want to play in big games, coaches and managers want to manage big games. and fans want to see big games.

“We’ve got one on Saturday and we’ll prepare the best we can. We’re looking forward to it and we know what we have to do.”

The Mariners fought back from a goal down to beat Melbourne City 2-1 last Tuesday night in a gritty display that pleased Jackson.

“We showed character, fight and adaptability as a group to recognise that things weren’t quite working,” he said.

“We found a way to win which is really important at this stage of the season.

“Of course we would have liked certain things to have worked better but sometimes you have to change and adapt and we did that. The players showed fight and quality.”

Phoenix coach Giancarlo Italiano has tried to play down any extra significance Saturday’s battle has, fearing it would lead to “distraction”.

“It’s another normal game,” Italiano said.

“It’s three points. If I was to give it more value, I’d give it more points, but it’s only worth three.

“If I go into the game thinking it’s a grand final or anything like that, it takes away from the fact that it’s just a game. If I make it bigger than what it is, then it becomes a distraction.”

Phoenix skipper Alex Rufer will miss the match through suspension after being sent off in his side’s 1-0 home win over Brisbane Roar last Saturday.

“I like to think we’re not completely dependent on one player,” Italiano said.

“It’s more about the collective, the mindset and making sure everyone’s on the same page.

“We’ve had `Rufs’ out before and we’ve also got results. The leadership comes from action and behaviour, and the whole group as a whole are very good in that respect.”