Newcastle Jets ready to test A-League title credentials
Newcastle Jets have laid the perfect platform to further showcase their A-League title credentials against Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, coach Ernie Merrick says.
But he expects Kevin Muscat's men to make life far more difficult at AAMI Park on Friday night than they did in last month's 4-1 Hunter walkover.
The second-placed Jets continued their high-flying season before Christmas with a 4-0 rout of the Western Sydney Wanderers, a performance Merrick hailed as his team's most complete.
Now they embark on a potentially season-defining four matches in 14 days -- away at the resurgent Victory and leaders Sydney FC before hosting the Central Coast Mariners and Brisbane Roar.
"The Wanderers game proves to themselves they can play good football for a whole 90 minutes," Merrick said.
"And to score four goals and not concede any is a good platform to prepare us for the next two matches.
"Four games is 12 points, and that makes a big difference in this league.
"Both Sydney and ourselves have had a little bit of a breakaway but the rest of the pack is pretty close.
"The league ladder can change enormously within one month, so it's important we keep picking up points."
Muscat's men are 10 points adrift of the Jets, having won three and lost one since November's woeful 10-man display at McDonald Jones Stadium.
"I think it will be end-to-end football," Merrick said. "They'll want to prove to their home fans that they can win back to back on a regular basis and AAMI Park is a fortress for them.
"It's going to be a very tough game, even though they haven't played well consistently."
The Jets, remarkably given their position five points behind Sydney, are still dealing with multiple injuries on top of long-term sidelined stars Ronald Vargas and Roy O'Donovan.
Defenders Nick Cowburn and Daniel Georgievski have both spent four weeks on the sidelines with knee issues.
While Cowburn proved his fitness in training on Tuesday, Georgievski remains touch and go and will, at best, sit on the bench.
Merrick now has additional issues with Ben Kantarovski experiencing back tightness and Lachlan Jackson coming down with tonsillitis.
Regardless, Merrick admitted it would be tough to replace in-form youngsters Ivan Vijuca, Johnny Koutroumbis and Joe Champness.
Midseason signing Riley McGree arrived on Wednesday but is likely to take some time off before leaving for Olyroos duty with Cowburn next week.
"It's the festival of football and yet everyone is losing players to an under-23 competition that's really worthless," Merrick said.
"It would be ideal to have a full squad so we can rotate them, but we don't have the numbers."