Round 18 of the PlayStation 4 National Premier Leagues' NSW 2 Men's competition kicks off this weekend and again, clubs will be desperate to earn maximum points.
The competition remains close but the consistency of the top four teams is looking ominous for others that have serious aspirations of being in the mix for the big games at the end of the season.
At this stage, Marconi, St George, Northern Tigers and Central Coast Mariners are looking like the real deal and crashing their party will take something special. These teams have been consistent and have the ability to grind out a result when under duress. But that's not to say the top four won't change, as a couple of wins and losses can alter the landscape dramatically.
The Football NSW cameras will be at Lilys Football Centre on Saturday night as Hills Brumbies entertain Bankstown Berries. Both sides lost last weekend and they'll be desperate to bounce back into the winners' circle.
In other Saturday matches, Northern Tigers host Macarthur and Mt Druitt visit Spirit FC.
On Sunday, St George host Central Coast Mariners in an intriguing clash between the two form sides of the competition; Mounties entertain Bankstown City Lions; Blacktown Spartans face Western Sydney Wanderers and Marconi play North Shore Mariners.
Match of the Round
Hills Brumbies v Bankstown Berries, 7.30 Saturday 1 July, Lilys Football Centre
Hills Brumbies and Bankstown Berries clash in this week's PS4 NPL 2 NSW Men's Match of the Round at Lilys Football Centre and both sides will be looking for maximum points after suffering losses last weekend.
The Brumbies were upset 2-1 at Macarthur, while the Berries were on the wrong side of a 5-4 result with Blacktown Spartans.
Hills currently sit in eighth place on the table, while the Berries lie five points behind in second-last, so points are invaluable as both sides seek to climb their way towards the top of the ladder.
The past month hasn't been an easy one for the Brumbies, with two defeats offset by a couple of draws. Indeed, Dan Sheppard's side hasn't won since they beat Mounties in Round 13 and they'll be desperate to kick-start their campaign against the Berries.
The Brumbies' cause hasn't been helped by the loss of goalscoring ace Peter Cejka, who transferred to Blacktown City; Victor Anyimba, who is now at Parramatta FC; and the retirement of goalkeeper Jackson Franich through injury.
Cejka's loss is probably the toughest, with his record of 12 goals from nine matches a key component of the Brumbies' success in the first half of the season.
Bankstown beat Hills 2-1 in Round 5 and Sheppard is expecting yet another tough encounter this weekend.
"They beat us in the last game so I'm expecting them to be tough opposition, physically good, and similar to what they were then," Sheppard told Football NSW. "They'll be defensively strong and I thought at the time we played them before that they were far better than their position on the table suggested. And what I've seen since then does suggest that as well. So they seem to have been a little bit unlucky with results."
Sheppard added that his side will be somewhat of a skeleton crew this weekend, with several players missing across all three senior grades, including forward Nick Dimitriadis, who will be absent for six weeks.
"It will be an interesting one this Saturday because we're very skinny. We'll have many players backing up through the grades due to a combination of injuries and suspensions and guys being away. It's going to be interesting."
Meanwhile, Berries' assistant coach Charles Samushonga said that his side needed to improve big time after last week's loss
"After last week I'm not even looking at the opposition, I'm looking at us," Samushonga told Football NSW. "I'll just worry about ourselves. The way we played at the weekend was unacceptable and it doesn't matter who we play this weekend, if we don't improve ten-fold, we will lose the game. It's as simple as that.
"So as opposed to looking at Hills Brumbies, I need us to look at ourselves and focus on ourselves. We need to get better everywhere."
One positive for the Berries is the return of player-coach Perry Moustakas, who will be available for selection after serving a lengthy suspension. His presence alone should inspire a side that needs as much inspiration it can get in order to climb away from the precipice of the competition table.
Northern Tigers v Macarthur Rams, 6.30pm, Saturday 1 July, North Turramurra Recreation Area
Northern Tigers host Macarthur Rams at North Turramurra this Saturday and Tigers' coach Mark McCormick is likely to be drumming home at training his side's need to focus for the full 90 minutes after last week's 2-all draw with Central Coast Mariners.
The Tigers led 2-0 with just four minutes remaining but somehow allowed the Mariners to steal a couple of goals and a share of the spoils. Not only that, but their defeat saw them drop to third on the table, two points behind rivals St George.
McCormick was bitterly disappointed with the outcome - not to mention a missed penalty that would have extended their lead to 3-0 - and he's sure to have his side primed for the clash against a Rams outfit flying high after an upset 2-1 win over Hills Brumbies.
Despite the draw, Northern Tigers are humming along nicely, and remain unbeaten in their last six matches; including draws with premiership contenders Central Coast and St George; and a 5-2 thumping of league leaders Marconi.
Meanwhile, Macarthur have been struggling in the past month but the acquisition of Argentinian import Marcelo Turdera may just be the inspiration they've been waiting for, Turdera scored both goals in his side's win over Hills last weekend and coach Eddie Briscoe will be hoping he can continue to do the damage.
"Marcelo plays right on the backline; he's sharp and has an eye for goal," Briscoe told Football NSW. "He could've had a couple more too. Overall, (it was a) great team performance and (I'm) very very happy. Everybody brought their A-game and performed to their best. That's the pleasing point. There were no standouts, just a great team performance."
The Rams will need to be at their very best against a Tigers outfit that will be keen to make amends for a lost opportunity against Central Coast last week. They'll need to be at their most spirited and be prepared to battle. If they can achieve that, then Briscoe's team of underdogs can have an impact against a side that is firming as a serious threat for the title.
Spirit FC v Mt Druitt Town Rangers, 7pm, Saturday 1 July, Valentine Sports Park
Spirit FC host Mt Druitt Town Rangers at Valentine on Saturday night and they'll be hoping to extend their unbeaten run to four matches after last week's unexpected win over North Shore Mariners.
Coach David Perkovic has been impressed with his side's performances since the second round began a month ago. In that time they've beaten Macarthur Rams (4-0), drawn with Western Sydney and last week beat North Shore 2-0, a run that has Perkovic and his side believing that despite being third last on the table, the possibility of playing finals football at isn't as far fetched as some might think.
"My players are motivated by the goal of playing semi-finals football," Perkovic told Football NSW. "We've got Mt Druitt this Saturday and then Bankstown Berries the following Wednesday, and they're both critical games. If we can come away with six points from those two games we'll be very much in the mix for the semis.
"Our commitment has been good since the turn of the season so I'm pleased we're getting some good results. There are still some things we need to improve on but defensively we're doing very well and have only conceded one goal in our last three games. Mt Druitt have been inconsistent of late so hopefully we can take the points this Saturday."
Meanwhile, Rangers will be hoping to bounce back into the winners' circle after a sub par performance against bottom-placed Bankstown City last weekend.
Assistant coach Steve Appleby was disappointed with the 2-1 result, especially given the quality of their recent form.
"In general we were very poor tonight; (compared to) how we've been playing (in recent games), that's not good enough," Appleby told Football NSW. "We didn't keep the ball well, we didn't open them up when we needed to. But fair play to them, they're in a relegation battle; they battled well. We didn't deal with it and we weren't good enough."
When asked what the difference was between the two sides, Appleby replied: "They wanted it more, to be honest with you. Again, it's just disappointing from us because we've been playing quite decent football and we just didn't do that tonight."
This match is critical for both sides. Spirit need the points to climb away from the bottom three, while Rangers need to maintain a presence among the top half and keep the pressure on those above them.
Blacktown Spartans v Western Sydney Wanderers, 3pm, Sunday 2 July, Blacktown Football Park
Blacktown Spartans face Western Sydney Wanderers at Blacktown Football Park this Sunday and both sides will be desperate to earn maximum points as the season gathers momentum.
The Spartans last week beat Bankstown Berries 5-4 to earn their second successive win; while the Wanderers suffered a 3-0 loss to Marconi, a result that gives them an unflattering record of one win from eight games.
Spartans coach Luis Contigiani was pleased with his side's victory but disappointed with some defensive lapses that almost cost them the game.
"We're our own worst enemies at times," Contigiani said. "But I'm impressed with my boys for coming back from 3-1 down away to a team that has had some good results here and there, and to win. That shows that morale is high and we're willing to fight for everything. We're not just going to go quietly in the night. We're going to fight for everything and we did that against the Berries. I hope that continues."
Looking ahead to the Wanderers clash, Contigiani said that despite the academy team'sstruggles this season, he wasn't about to underestimate them.
"They're the best of their generation. They're going to be fast, technical and they're going to try to move us around," Congiani said. "They're going to try to play through the lines very quickly. I'm expecting a big test.
"What impresses me the most about the Wanderers is the way they keep possession and go forward. So we have to focus on being clinical in attack and defence, and we'll see how well we execute our gameplan on the day.
"The thing is, our game plan is simple. We get the ball, we look to play out quickly and we use our speed in the final third. Teams can prepare but if we're on our game we can hurt anyone," including Western Sydney.
Meanwhile, Trevor Morgan's young Wanderers have been surprisingly below par so far this season. And despite their brilliance, they've struggled to win games, a scenario that threatens their ability to keep pace with the top four.
Granted, fifth place on the ladder isn't a bad place to be - there are nine other clubs who'd love to be in that position - but the Wanderers' struggles must be a concern to a club that last season only missed promotion to the top tier by a whisker.
The loss of several of the team's senior players midseason hasn't helped and with the club's desire to develop players for the A-League squad, playing style trumps results as a priority.
Results-wise, the coming weeks will be critical to the Wanderers' cause but given the talent among their ranks, the resources at their disposal and the professional environment in which they operate, there's still time for the Red and Black to make an impact.
Marconi Stallions v North Shore Mariners, 3pm, Sunday 2 July, Marconi Stadium
Premiership favourites Marconi Stallions will be looking to continue their impressive form under new coach Peter Tsekenis when they host North Shore Mariners at Bossley Park this Sunday, but they'll also be keen to exorcise the demons of the 4-0 drubbing they copped at the hands of the Mariners earlier in the season.
In the leadup to that Round 5 clash, Mariners coach Joe Haywood was confident his side could cause the sky blues a few problems. But nobody outside the Mariners' inner circle would have believed the Northbridge club had a chance.
Marconi rested a few of their stars, including Sean Rooney, Peter Triantis, Christopher Nunes and Judah Cleur, a move that backfired as the Mariners ran riot. It's unlikely Tsekenis will make the same mistake when he names his side this weekend.
When asked how his side did the unthinkable, Mariners coach Joe Haywood replied: "We just took our chances to be honest, that was the main thing. We've been creating chances all season but not taking them. We didn't necessarily control the game but whatever chances we got we took 'em."
The Mariners' defensive structure and mindset throughout the game was impressive. The players knew exactly what their roles were and regardless of the pressure created by the opposition, they stuck to their guns and ultimately came away with the spoils.
"We've been working on our style since preseason and finally it all clicked last night and we got what we deserved," Haywood added.
"This was a team performance, we had four different goalscorers on the night and everybody played their part, including the boys who came off the bench. They played their part and they played it well."
However, things haven't been so rosy out Northbridge way in recent weeks. The Mariners' juggernaut has hit a sand bar and while they lie in seventh place on the ladder, since beating Western Sydney a few weeks ago, the team's performances have been inconsistent and lacking the vigor of the early stages of the season when they bludgeoned their opponents into submission.
They'll need to improve if they're to trouble a Marconi outfit that has started to play with renewed self-belief and vigor. And their improvement has coincided with the arrival of Tsekenis, whose confidence, experience and success around the traps as both a player and coach has been well received at a club once considered to be the finest in the land.
"It's about culture, it's about belief, it's about frame of mind and the people around you," Tsekenis said of his coaching philosophy after dispatching Western Sydney 3-0 last weekend. "Slowly we're improving. We're still not where we want to be but you can see the improvement week-in, week-out and people are buying into it. Not just players, but staff and board members, everyone involved at the club."
When asked what impressed him about his side's win over the Wanderers, Tsekenis replied: "We thrive to get a clean sheet every week and we achieved that. We set goals and we're achieving them. We played against a very handy Western Sydney Wanderers team that are well-drilled and if you let them play, they can hurt you. We stuck to a game plan and we restricted them and controlled the game and the tempo. We probably could have scored a couple more to be honest. But I'm very happy with the performance, it was quite solid."
Mounties Wanderers v Bankstown City Lions, 3pm, Sunday 2 July, Valentine Sports Park
Mounties will host Bankstown City Lions at Valentine Sports Park on Sunday in a match that is critical to both sides.
Despite their quality, Lee Sterrey's Mounties side has underperformed this season. They've struggled to score goals; they've struggled to deliver the killer blow when their opponents are almost dead and buried; and they just haven't coped with the lofty expectations of a club with serious Premiership ambitions.
Led by the brilliant Spanish import Neftali Gonzalez, Mounties should be in a better place than they are at the moment. But for whatever reason, their struggles in the front and rear thirds have been a serious problem.
Last week's 4-3 loss to St George is a prime example of the vulnerability of the side.
Not only did Mounties lead Saints three times during the match, they were also awarded three penalties. Yet somehow they managed to lose the game. They missed two of the pens and butchered other opportunities in general play.
"Nobody should score three goals and lose a game," Sterrey told Football NSW. "Our marking and defending in the second half was too loose and really poor. We had three leads in the game and again it was a game we didn't close out and didn't capitalise on. Scoring three goals away from home should be good enough to win a game of football.
"Three leads in the second half should've been enough to win, so I'm really disappointed with the defending in the second half. It was really poor and ultimately cost us the game."
Mounties will need to be on the ball when they face a Bankstown side that, despite their well-documented struggles this season and their position at the foot of the table, are quite capable of mixing it with anyone.
Fresh from a last-gasp 2-1 win at Mt Druitt, Mile Todoroski's team will arrive at Valentine Sports Park confident they can rattle their hosts and take something out of the game.
The wily coach was delighted with his side's win last week and he'll be hoping they can repeat the dose and achieve something they haven't done all season - win two games in a row.
"We can't win two games (in a row)," Todoroski told Football NSW. "We're always hot cold, hot cold. So we'll see how we go against Mounties.
"But I'm very pleased with how we played and very pleased with my boys," Todoroski said after the win over Mt Druitt. "They played like we talked all week. They played with the right tactics and discipline and at the end of the day I think we fully deserve this win.
"I was impressed with our fighting attitude and discipline. It was the discipline that brought us home and every player deserves credit for the win."
St George v Central Coast Mariners, 5pm, Sunday 2 July, Seymour Shaw Park
St George and Central Coast Mariners face each other at Seymour Shaw this Sunday in what will be a fascinating duel between the form teams of the competition.
Saints have gone from being consistently inconsistent to one of the gun sides in the league, with their recent performances impressing even those who doubted their merits as Premiership contenders.
Meanwhile, Central Coast are on an unbeaten streak of seven matches, and with 49 goals to their name, have scored the most in the competition, seven more than league leaders Marconi. Their spectacular playing style and the finishing ability of strikers Duncan Stewart and Brenton Fox, makes them the most potent attacking outfit in the league, something of which Saints coach Terry Palapanis is well aware.
"They've scored the most goals in the competition I believe so they're going to be very hard to beat," Palapanis told Football NSW. "They're the form team in the competition and I rate them highly. They're a good young team but if we can contain them then we stand a chance."
St George meanwhile, have been in scintillating form themselves, with Spanish import Juan Carlos Romero scoring a swag of goals and midfielder Bruno Pivato discovering a new lease of life since returning to the club after a short stint at Bankstown City.
Saints went into last week's match against Mounties without Tarik Ercan, Daniel Loe, Jonathan Kontalis, Jayden McLeod and Nico Paras, who were all suspended; and despite the disruption, they played with courage to steal an unlikely 4-3 win after conceding three penalties and trailing three times throughout the game.
Of the five suspended, four will be available for selection this weekend: Paras, Kontalis, Loe and McLeod; while first choice goalkeeper Andrew Depta is available after being out for 10 weeks, giving Palapanis a healthy selection headache.
Both sides are currently riding the crest of a wave, and both have absolute belief in their teammates, their ability to compete when the chips are down and their ability to win.
Despite struggling for results earlier this season, Mariners coach Ben Cahn constantly praised his side's performances until he was blue in the face, often encountering looks of disbelief from those who only saw a struggling young side languishing near the foot of the table.
But Cahn stayed true to his young charges. After all, they were playing brilliant football. They were creating a multitude of chances. But they couldn't score a goal to save themselves. Not only that, they also possessed a leaky defence that drove Cahn crazy with their habit of conceding silly goals.
But all that has changed. So much so that the young Mariners have hit a purple patch that hasn't just netted them a remarkable 33 goals in seven matches, but has also seen them conede a paltry seven. Remarkable.
St George's ascendancy up the ladder has also been remarkable and one that not many outside the club predicted, but Palapanis said he was always confident his side had the talent to do something special.
"I truly believe that this team believes they can actually win every game," he said. "I can see it in the changing room and I can see it at training. You sense things. You walk into the changing room before the game and there's a buzz about the place. The changing room is fantastic and as a coach, you walk in and go 'mate, we aren't losing today'. That self belief is a combination of their ability and their character."
This is one of the most eagerly-anticipated games of the season and one thing's for sure: given both clubs' records in the front and rear thirds, there should be plenty of goals to keep the locals entertained at Seymour Shaw on Sunday.
-By Derek Royal, Football NSW Reporter