|By PAUL GOUGH
Sydney FC's improvement under new manager Frank Farina is being tipped by the bookies to come to a temporary halt when the Sky Blues meet Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park on Saturday in the pick of Week 18 A-League action.
The sell-out match also marks Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero's first appearance in Melbourne and comes at a time when the former Juventus superstar is in vintage form, having scored four goals in last Saturday's 7-1 rout over Wellington.
That win lifted the Sky Blues to seventh place on the A-League ladder and - after their disastrous start to the season - the twice champions now just find themselves one point from the top six with ten matches remaining.
Sydney FC's odds of making the top six were immediately slashed from $2.32 to $2.08 by Betfair punters.
The Sky Blues have now taken 14 points in nine games since former Socceroos' manager Frank Farina took charge of the club, after taking just six points from their first eight games under former manager Ian Crook and then caretaker Steve Corica.
It was Victory which ended Crook's tenure when they came from 2-0 down to beat Sydney FC 3-2 at Allianz Stadium in Sydney earlier this season, thanks to youngster Andrew Nabbout's late brace.
Victory are the $1.75 favourites at the TAB and at sportsbet.com.au but better value paying $1.90 at Betfair, while Sydney FC are priced at $4.10 with Betfair and $4.20 at the TAB. The draw is paying $3.60 at the TAB and sportsbet.com.au and $3.95 at Betfair.
Del Piero is priced at $2.80 at sportsbet.com.au to score at any time during Saturday's match, with Victory strikers Archie Thompson [$1.91] and Marco Rojas [$2.50] above him in betting, while Nabbout is priced at $3.40.
In the first goalscorer market, it is Thompson at $5, Rojas at $6.50, Del Piero at $7.50 and Nabbout at $9.
As far as correct-score betting is concerned, a 1-1 draw has come up the early favourite at $7 at sportsbet.com.au but is much better value at $8.40 with Betfair.
With Victory having kept a clean sheet in two of their past three matches, however, we fancy them to nick it 1-0 at odds of $8.50 at sportsbet.com.au and $10.50 at Betfair.
|Melbourne Victory, Central Coast and Western Sydney to win at Betfair
||Melbourne Victory to win 1-0 v Sydney FC at $10.50 at Betfair|
The other big game of Week 18 is on Friday between league leaders Central Coast and second-placed Adelaide.
The Reds are in a slump with just two wins from their past six matches, while the Mariners have won the last six meetings between the teams.
As a result, Graham Arnold's team are the $1.75 favourites to extend their three-point lead over Adelaide at the top of the table at the TAB and $1.83 at Betfair, while the Reds are priced at $4.40 and $5 respectively.
In the other games on Saturday, Western Sydney should take another step towards securing a finals berth in their debut season by winning at home against Melbourne Heart, with the Wanderers the $1.71 favourites at Betfair against the Heart at $5.60.
The final game of Saturday's Australia Day triple header - a re-match of last year's grand final between Perth and Brisbane, in Western Australia - looks tough to predict.
Both teams sit outside the top six this season, with the Glory winless in five matches and the Roar having lost their past three, which makes the draw at $3.30 at the TAB and $3.40 at Betfair probably the way to go in this one.
* Note prices subject to change