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Five big weekend predictions

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1. Mariners dull Sydney FC's stars

The Sky Blues will be without star late-season recruit Lucas Neill (calf strain) but it won't make any difference. Even without the services of Celtic recruit Tom Rogic, Central Coast are still one of the best-organised teams in the league. In contrast, Sydney FC have been little short of shambolic at the back. They will be helped by the home-ground advantage but the absence of adventurous defender Fabio, red-carded against Perth last week, is even more conspicuous with Neill gone. Alessandro Del Piero will likely produce another piece of brilliance but it's hard to see the Sky Blues - statistically the A-League's worst defence - holding out the Mariners for 90 minutes. With Daniel McBreen in career-best form, expect Central Coast to keep the heat on the league-leading Wanderers with another win. - MR

2. Hot Pies silence the Lions' roar

On the face of it, Brisbane have been one of the pre-season's surprise packets, remaining one of four undefeated teams after two rounds of the NAB Cup. But dig a little deeper and their lofty position isn't as impressive as it seems. The Lions have had the benefit of playing both Gold Coast and GWS - the only team to do so - and their win over Hawthorn came when the Hawks had already played the Suns and the Lions were fresh. What's more it was at the Gabba, where Brisbane were far better equipped to deal with the heat. In contrast, Collingwood accounted for the Western Bulldogs and an impressive Essendon in the first week, before travelling to Perth and downing West Coast by 20 points. If this was a two-horse race, the Pies would be weighted several kilos more than their opponents on Saturday night. With the game at Etihad Stadium, Collingwood should be unbackable favourites to reach next week's NAB Cup grand final. – MR

3. Cowboys edge Bulldogs on the Central Coast

Canterbury's build-up to their clash against North Queensland has been far from ideal. Their 2012 Dally M Medal winner Ben Barba has been stood down indefinitely over behavioural issues, and they'll also be missing international forwards James Graham, Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard. The Cowboys have had no such problems and go into this match with their strongest possible side. They boast Australian front-rowers James Tamou and Matt Scott, a pair that may be difficult for the Bulldogs to handle minus those three stars in their pack. Canterbury coach Des Hasler will be plotting a way of dealing with the absence of four of his big guns and the Dogs may well find a way to scratch out some wins while those players are missing. But given the disruptions over the off-season and the quality of their opponents first up, we're tipping they'll fall short this week. North Queensland to win by 1-12. - DR

4. Brumbies muscle Izzy, Tahs off the park

Fierce rivals the Brumbies and Waratahs face off in the Australian capital on Saturday night, with a couple of added wrinkles. The Tahs will of course be bringing walking headline Israel Folau along for just his third union game, though the spotlight is slowly dimming around the star recruit following a less-than-stellar debut and a so-so showing against the Rebels last weekend. That won't stop the home fans from paying him out, however. The Brumbies, meanwhile are on an early hot streak after belting the Reds and Rebels, and also have the benefit of a 15-day break and a returning hero in 110-Test Wallaby George Smith, who will warm the bench. Put it all together and we can't see any way the Tahs take the chocolates back up to Sydney. The Brumbies to win handily. - AJ

5. Reading, Villa share points in relegation scrap

Relegation battlers Reading and Aston Villa face off at the Madjeski Stadium on Saturday, with both sides in dire need of three points as the business end of the season approaches. Unfortunately, we don't think either is going to walk away happy from this encounter. The stats are grim: Villa have won just one of their past 11 league matches, while Reading have lost three straight after a promising run through January. Neither side has kept a clean sheet in over two months. Villa striker Christian Benteke has been on a goal-scoring tear of late and was unfortunate not to find the net against Manchester City last time out, so expect the Belgian to hit the score sheet at some stage. But, just like clockwork, Reading will find a way through Villa's shoddy defence and secure a draw. - AJ

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