A-League
Preview: Melbourne Heart v Brisbane Roar
SOCCER

Preview: Melbourne Heart v Brisbane Roar

Melbourne Heart and Brisbane Roar will meet in Round 20 of the 2013-14 A-League season at AAMI Park on Sunday, February 23 at 5.00pm AEDT.

Head-to-head:
Played 10 - Wins: Heart 3, Roar 5, Draws: 2

Previous encounter:
Brisbane Roar 3-0 Heart, November 3, 2013

Form:
Past five matches
Heart: WWWDW
Roar: LDWWD

The Game:
Top of the table and still boasting that seven-point buffer over the second-placed Western Sydney Wanderers, the Roar lost for the third time this season against the Jets on Sunday and will be determined to prove that result was just a blip when they return to action seven days later. But Mike Mulvey's men are unlikely to have an easy time of it against a Heart team who have swept all before them in recent weeks. It certainly all came together for John van 't Schip's side in New Zealand, and they bear almost no resemblance to the hapless team that couldn't buy a win earlier this season. Beating Brisbane would be the ultimate endorsement of their transformation.


The big issue:
Heart - Winning the midfield battle. On Sunday Van 't Schip scored a tactical success by using Patrick Gerhardt to mark Carlos Hernandez out of the game, allowing Massimo Murdocca and Orlando Engelaar to run the show. Will the hosts attempt to same approach again this weekend? Thomas Broich is more mobile and slightly smarter than Hernandez, making him a less likely target for successful man-marking. The Roar also have a more technically proficient midfield than Wellington, with Luke Brattan and Steven Lustica certain to treat the ball with care. Matt McKay returned to action against the Jets and his possible inclusion in the starting XI ahead of Diogo Ferreira would spell trouble for Heart.


Roar - Brisbane need to tighten up at the back, relatively speaking. Mike Mulvey's side still have the best defensive record in the A-League this season, having conceded 17 goals in their 19 matches. But six of those have come in their last six matches, with just one clean sheet in that run, away to Perth Glory. Compare that to five clean sheets in the first 13 games of the season, a solidity which helped establish the Queensland side as front-runners and the team to beat this season. If centre-backs Matt Smith and Jade North can help goalkeeper Micheal Theo blank the free-scoring Heart, it will bode well for the Roar during the run-in to the finals.

The game breaker(s):
Besart Berisha - on Sunday the Albanian will take to the field at his future home, AAMI Park, against a team who will be his local rivals when he joins Melbourne Victory for the 2014-15 campaign. Berisha leads the Roar's goal-scorers with eight strikes this season, one back in the race for the golden boot behind a four-way tie at the top of the charts. Patrick Kisnorbo and Robbie Wielaert have looked particularly strong at the back for Heart in recent weeks, but neither is blessed with great pace, and goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne is far from flawless. Make no mistake, there will be chances for the visitors in this match, and Berisha rarely needs a second invitation to punish his opponents' mistakes.

Prediction: Melbourne Heart 1-2 Brisbane Roar
It seems every time we tip Heart's extraordinary revival to come to an end the team in red and white produce another improbable performance, outdoing themselves last weekend with their thumping victory in New Zealand. So the club's supporters will surely thank us for backing against them again this week. Seriously though, the Roar are the sternest challenge Van 't Schip's side have faced since their winning run began, and will surely prove a bridge too far for the home side at AAMI. Led by Broich and Berisha, Brisbane have quality all over the field and will be keen to respond to their home defeat to bogey team Newcastle. But if Heart prove us wrong and do it again, this time we won't be surprised, and probably no-one else will either.

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