Newcastle Jets marquee Ronald Vargas set to return to starting XI
Newcastle Jets coach Ernie Merrick is leaning towards giving fit-again playmaker Ronnie Vargas his first A-League start in five months as he looks to replace Socceroo squad member Dimi Petratos.
Vargas made an eye-catching comeback off the bench against Wellington last Saturday after recovering from a serious ankle injury he suffered against Brisbane in October.
With Petratos away on international duty, Vargas, who came on in the 63rd minute in Auckland, is in contention to start Friday's away game against Adelaide.
"I thought he played extremely well when he came on and that's why I'm tempted to start him but I'll leave that decision to the last minute," Merrick said.
"Just whether he'll have the best possible effect starting or coming off [the bench]. I'm leaning towards starting him, because he's up to the pace of the game.
"He's always going to be a little bit sharper through match practice, but his fitness, endurance fitness and sprinting is all very good.
"The temptation is throw him on at the start and let him decide when he's had enough, see if he can last the half, or bring him on at the beginning of the second half, when there might be a little more pace off the game."
Merrick is confident he can cover Petratos, who has been a hugely influential figure in the team this season.
"Certainly Ronnie [Vargas] is every bit as good, and Riley [McGree] is just improving out of sight and Steven Ugarkovic is an attacking midfielder," Merrick said.
"Pato [Rodriguez] coming inside is dangerous, so I think we can more than cover for him."
A win over Adelaide would lift second placed Newcastle to within two points of ladder-leading Sydney FC, though Merrick wasn't highlighting that.
"We know we're probably going to finish second, and so it's really about getting the team shape right and learning a lesson, from the previous game," Merrick said.
To that end, he delivered a blast to all sections of his side about improving their defensive work following the win over Wellington.
"It was just a reality check as to how to defend, starting up front, through midfield and our backline holding a safer line and a very high line," Merrick said.