Long-time friends ... Tony Popovic in 2006 as a Socceroos defender (bottom middle) with assistant coach Graham Arnold (top right) at the World Cup finals in Germany. Photo: Getty Images
DESPITE not contacting his friend and mentor all week, Western Sydney coach Tony Popovic has sent a message to Central Coast coach, and this week's adversary, Graham Arnold: ''He'll be in for a tough game.''
The Wanderers tackle the competition leaders at Parramatta Stadium on Sunday and Popovic is confident in his team's ability to thwart the title favourites in front of what is expected to be a parochial crowd of 15,000.
''You're playing a team that's top of the table and is the most consistent team in the league,'' Popovic said. ''It certainly is a test but we're at home, we'll have our fans behind us, we have a group of players that are very confident and have a lot of belief in each other. But we also know that if we're not at our best it will be difficult to get a result.
''We're pretty comfortable with the type of football we're playing. Arnie has his assessment of our team. One thing for sure, he knows he'll be in for a tough game.''
Popovic, who also played under Arnold in the Socceroos, revealed he had frequently utilised his friend's reservoir of knowledge throughout the season, but had found information harder to come by this week.
''He hasn't given me any advice this week, but I'm sure we'll be back on the phone with each other next week and all will be back to normal,'' Popovic said. ''I have the utmost respect for Arnie, we've been through a lot together … in terms of playing when I first started out.
''Now in coaching, he's someone that I spoke to a fair bit before I took on this job and he's always been there to lend some advice.
''He does have 15 years of coaching experience and he's always been someone there that I can have a chat with at any time.''
Popovic and the Wanderers will have fresh memories of his first outing as an A-League coach during his side's brave 0-0 draw in round one.
''We've certainly improved since that day and I'm sure Central Coast have also improved. That was a special day,'' he said.
''Our first ever match here in the A-League, a day we'll always remember. But a lot has happened since then. We've certainly improved as a club, as a team on the park.''
Although Central Coast enter the round two points clear on top of the A-league table, Arnold rated the Wanderers franchise as probably the competition's form team.
The Wanderers have won four and drawn one of their last five games, while the Mariners have won eight and lost just one of their past 11. Arnold, who described Popovic this week as like a ''little brother'', never doubted his former national squad teammate would make a good coach.
''He's obsessed by the sport, he's a real student of the game and it was no surprise that he would do this type of job down at Western Sydney,'' Arnold said.
Mariners captain John Hutchinson and leading goal scorer Daniel McBreen return from suspension but Central Coast will be without Patrick Zwaanswijk (groin), Tomas Rogic (suspension) and James Oates (ankle).
Defender Adam D'Apuzzo should feature in the match, but it depends on how he pulls up after Saturday's training session.
Captain Michael Beauchamp and Youssouf Hersi are unavailable, with Tahj Minniecon also likely to miss the match with a foot injury.
Midfield playmaker Aaron Mooy returns from suspension while centre-back Nikolai Topor-Stanley takes the captain's armband.
German defender Jerome Polenz re-signed with the club on Saturday but Popovic didn't rule out adding more players in the January transfer window with the re-signing of in-form midfielder Shinji Ono high on the priority list.
''He's a quality player and we're quite comfortable with our situation at the moment with him. He's happy, we're happy and I'm sure those talks will happen in due time,'' Popovic said.