Sydney FC v Central Coast Mariners: The lowdown

THE only predictable thing about the A-League since it began is that it is entirely unpredictable from match to match, let alone month to month.

No teams embody this better than the four NSW clubs, where, upon the current pulse, Western Sydney are the most likely to achieve success while Sydney FC continue a seemingly irreversible downwards curve.

Yet by the end of the weekend, it is entirely possible four points will separate the Sky Blues from the Wanderers, with a match in hand. Depending on your take, nothing is certain or all is not lost.

Such is the nature of this competition, it can take barely a lucky goal to rise or fall several positions, while a run of three or four games - to victory or defeat - can lay the platform for an entire season.

The beauty for all NSW sides is that while none have hit top form just yet, all have legitimate prospects if they can find that consistency they have collectively lacked in the opening half of the season.

Though the Wanderers have lost two of their past three, a top-two position is Tony Popovic's to lose. They're well-drilled and have set their sights on going one better than last season. Expect them to sit a stride or two off Brisbane until March before making a mad dash to the line.

How Central Coast can keep going is anyone's guess, yet who would write them off? History has taught us too many times that they love being backed into a corner. While it would take a miracle for them to win again, they remain a lurking threat.

Newcastle have outsmarted Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar away from home, which provides a sound indicator of their potential. But, for now, that's all it is.

Sydney are again in flux, again unsure of their direction and again looking for individual inspiration rather than collective improvement. They are gallant at home but seldom impressive away.

WESTERN SYDNEY WANDERERS 

Current position: 2nd

Championship odds: $4.50 (Sportsbet.com.au)

The season so far: Started beautifully but no longer unbeatable. Though you know what you will get style-wise, Popovic's controversial rotation policy has probably cost them top spot. It's a calculated risk: he is backing his players to be fit and fresh for the finals and the Asian Champions League.

Where they must improve: They have won just three of their past nine games, averaging just a goal per game in that period. They have not scored more than two goals in a match and have only scored twice three times, leaving their goal difference at three. Disquiet over the futures of Shinji Ono, Youssouf Hersi and Aaron Mooy threatens to rupture the famed dressing room harmony.

Key man: Tomi Juric has already scored five goals this year but simply must hit double figures if his side are to contend. He is the only Wanderers' striker who strikes genuine fear into opposition defences when he lines up, especially when Ono is feeding him the ball.

On the outer: Michael Beauchamp has gone from captain supreme to persona non grata. He has kept a dignified silence but it's only natural he'd look to find a new club soon.

CENTRAL COAST MARINERS

Current position: 4th

Championship odds: $10

The season so far: Graham Arnold's departure was planned for but still came as a shock when it happened. Take away Michael McGlinchey and Marcos Flores and the club has lost three of their most important people. That Central Coast is hanging on to fourth spot is a measure of their resolute professionalism.

Where they must improve: The well-oiled machine of previous years is squeaking. The Mariners don't seem as fluid this season and it's no surprise, considering how the club keeps selling its best players. The capture of Bernie Ibini on loan is a start but owner Mike Charlesworth needs to give coach Phil Moss the funds to go shopping if there is any hope for back-to-back titles.

Key man: Daniel McBreen was the feel-good story of the A-League last year, scoring 19 goals. He's managed just one so far this campaign and is having to adjust to being a fill-in playmaker. Even though he's 36, don't write him off just yet.

On the outer: Marcel Seip came from the Netherlands with the ambitious hope of being Patrick Zwaanswijk's replacement. It hasn't worked out so far and the club will consider any offers this month.

NEWCASTLE JETS

Current position: 6th

Championship odds: $13

The season so far: It threatened to go pear-shaped for Gary van Egmond early, before Adam Taggart delivered on his much-talked about potential to spur the Jets up the table. They are still only sixth, and have some holes, but they are clearly a young team on the up with a solid defence and midfield.

Where they must improve: Up front the Jets have quality but lack cohesion. Emile Heskey (who still seems lacking in match fitness), Joey Gibbs, Michael Bridges, James Virgili and James Brown have contributed one goal between them.

Key man: Kew Jaliens has been an exceptional buy for the Jets this season and it's hardly surprising given his pedigree. He must maintain his exceptional level.

On the outer: Craig Goodwin has started just four games this year and only gets a look in when others are unavailable. While the left-back's talent is widely recognised, his aerobic fitness remains a sticking point.

SYDNEY FC

Current position: 7th

Championship odds: $11

The season so far: Take away the four-game winning streak and they would be two points above winless Melbourne Heart. That burst of form has kept them in the hunt but they have been mired in mediocrity, save for the occasional flush of brilliance from Alessandro Del Piero.

Where they must improve: The game plan seems easily broken down. Players seem confused about basic tactical concepts: when to press, staying compact, overlapping, defensive cover, tempo management, counter-attacking and ball retention. Nikola Petkovic has been a revelation at the back but the defence is porous.

Key man: Nicky Carle must find traction in the second half of the season. He can change matches but the holding midfield experiment is exploiting a fraction of his talent.

On the outer: Terry McFlynn made just his second start of the season in the derby, bringing a much needed dose of organisation. The ex-captain should not be ignored - and if Frank Farina wants to release Carle forward, McFlynn could protect the space.