Round 20 of the PlayStation 4 National Premier Leagues' 2 NSW Men's competition kicks off this Friday night when Bankstown City host Marconi at Jensen Park in a clash that pits the top dog's against the cellar-dwellers.
But despite the gulf between the two clubs, the Lions are expected to fight to the death as their place in the second tier hangs by a thread.
In other games Northern Tigers host Western Sydney Wanderers; Central Coast Mariners entertain Macarthur Rams; Spirit FC face Mounties Wanderers; North Shore Mariners journey to Hills United; Blacktown Spartans take on Mt Druitt Town Rangers and St George host Bankstown Berries.
As always, expect the unexpected.
Bankstown City vs Marconi Stallions, 7.30pm, Friday 14 July, Jensen Park
The Football NSW cameras will be at Jensen Park on Friday night for the Match of the Round between Bankstown City Lions and Marconi Stallions.
Marconi are such overwhelming favourites to win this clash for several reasons. One, they lead the league by a healthy seven-point margin and sit an astonishing 28 points clear of bottom-placed Bankstown.
Two, they're currently playing with such clinical precision that it doesn't seem to matter whether on the day they're good, bad or ugly, they just have a knack for stealing the spoils.
Three, there isn't a more talented team in the league, with former Socceroo Michael Beauchamp leading the likes of Golden Boot favourite Sean Rooney, the robust Mirjan Pavlovic and silky Marko Jesic, experienced players who have played at Australia's highest level.
Finally, there's coach and former Olyroo Peter Tsekenis, who has commanded respect from his side since the day he walked into Marconi Stadium and started implementing his style and expectations on a group that hadn't always been singing from the same hymn sheet.
"I've had a lot of success and there's a formula that I believe in and it seems to work," Tsekenis told Football NSW. "It's about culture, it's about belief, it's about frame of mind and the people around you. We know what it looks like, we put it together and we're confident it works. 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."
Bankstown meanwhile, are in dire straits. With just seven rounds to go, Mile Todoroski's side need to win as many games as possible if they're to avoid the drop into the third tier.
2017 has been one of the worst seasons in the club's storied history.
The storm was brewing in the offseason following the departure of all but two of last year's first grade squad, with Huseyin Jasli and Adem Kir staying loyal to a club that has in recent years been one of the league's most dominant forces. But losing the likes of former Socceroo Michael Beauchamp, the experienced Grant Lynch and sharpshooter Christopher Gomez ripped the heart and soul out of the club, making life very difficult for first-year coach John Caruana.
Caruana parted ways with the club on the eve of the round 3 clash with North Shore Mariners, a match the Lions ultimately lost 4-1. Bankstown moved fast to appoint former Lion Todoroski as Caruana's replacement, a change that gave the club hope and resurrected the players' desire.
"Mile (Todoroski) brings experience to the club. He has the older head and he's definitely got the respect of the players," vice-captain Jasli told Football NSW earlier this season.
Despite the dramas at Jensen Park, Bankstown actually recruited well in the offseason, with the likes of Fraser Park's Davide Talone, Bruno Pivato from St George (who has since returned to his former club), and Hakoah Sydney City East duo Hussein Akil and Aaron D'Mello forming the nucleus of a number of quality signings. But with so many newcomers, developing combinations was slow, while injuries also played their part in the club's disappointing start to the season, with key players dropping like flies and disrupting the team's ability to gel into a cohesive unit.
Admittedly, it's not easy having 15 or 16 new players and a new coach. Throw in injuries and some poor results and life becomes desperate, especially with a small squad. But that was then and this is now.
Former Marconi player Michael Cimino faces his old club for the first time this season and the 22-year-old will be keen to put in a good shift; while the likes of Jasli, Akil and D'Mello will need to be at their very best if their side is to keep pace with a Stallions outfit that gets stronger by the week and just keeps on winning.
Northern Tigers vs Western Sydney Wanderers, 2pm, Saturday 15 July, North Turramurra
Northern Tigers host Western Sydney Wanderers in what is sure to be an intriguing battle between two of the league's footballing "stylists" at North Turramurra on Saturday.
The Tigers have been meandering along in recent weeks while Western Sydney will be desperate to exorcise the demons of last week's shock 4-1 defeat to Hills United.
Tigers coach Mark McCormick was delighted with his side's nil-all draw against Bankstown Berries last weekend, and suggested that given the number of opportunities created, his side could easily have scored four or five goals.
"We worked fantastic last night, we played really, really well," McCormick told Football NSW. "We created loads of chances but just couldn't score. The players were fantastic. Their workrate and ball retention, their creaitivity and the fact we played the way we wanted to play was excellent. We probably deserved to win, we just couldn't convert our opportunities."
McCormick started three teenagers and one 20-year-old against the Berries, improving his squad's depth and potential for the future.
"It's great for the young guys," McCormick said. "I'm delighted with how we played and on another night we could've won that game four or five nil."
The Scotsman added that he thought the league was interesting due to the fact that every team has the potential to win, "but we've got a lot of hard work ahead of us if we're to make the playoffs".
Meanwhile, Western Sydney's form this season has been unpredictable. Boasting some of the most precocious young talent in the country, the Red and Black have had their moments and played some scintillating football. Football that has been good enough to see them sitting pretty in fourth place on the table.
But for a side with such pedigree they've also struggled for consistency, which is to be expected of a team comprised of teenagers.
Last week the Wanderers suffered a 4-1 loss to Hills, an exasperating setback after beating Blacktown Spartans the previous week.
Wanderers' coach Trevor Morgan's brief is to develop players for the future; players capable of stepping into Tony Popovic's first team when the call arrives. Morgan has succeeded in doing that in the past two seasons, nurturing the likes of first team regulars Jonathan Aspropotamitis and Lachlan Scott; and newly-signed Keanu Baccus and Abraham Majok, players with serious aspirations of playing the game at the highest level.
With just seven weeks remaining before the end of the regular season, Western Sydney has a golden opportunity to put some form on the board and to gain some momentum in the leadup to the finals series. A win over the Tigers would be a timely boost for Morgan's young charges but they'll have to be on top of their game to get over a side that thrives on work ethic and style.
Central Coast Mariners vs Macarthur Rams, 5pm, Saturday 15 July, Pluim Park
Central Coast Mariners host Macarthur Rams at Pluim Park this Saturday and both sides will be looking to bounce back from respective losses last weekend.
After leading 2-0 at the break, the Mariners last Saturday faltered in the second half to allow Mounties Wanderers to come back from the dead and steal a 3-2 victory
While Mariners coach Ben Cahn was delighted with his side's first half performance, he was far from impressed with the second half.
"It was a tale of two halves," Cahn told Football NSW. "We were outstanding in the first half. We had about 90 per cent of the ball, scored two goals, created a few more chances and never came under any threat (from Mounties). We were completely dominant and in control."
But despite sitting in the box seat at halftime, Mounties clawed their way back into the contest to steal the spoils.
"Mounties just went completely direct against us in the second half," Cahn said. "They put four up front and at every opportunity just played long balls which was effective for them with their big Number 9. We struggled to deal with it and didn't get enough pressure on the first ball. We weren't equipped to deal with it and made mistakes at the back which led to one of their goals.
"It was a really disappointing second half, we didn't manage the game at all. We didn't adjust to the change in tempo and the change in style from them. Despite that we still had a couple of really good one-on-ones in the second half and had a penalty turned down.
"Then we had an unfortunate red card to Michael Glassock for a ball that hit his shoulder. A couple of things went against us but we've really only got ourselves to blame. It was a tough second half and disappointing to be falling back into those habits.
Cahn added that with the return of the club's A-League team to preseason training, his side is likely to struggle for consistency for the rest of the season.
"We had players involved midweek with a preseason game for the first team, we've had players in and out for first team training, and we'll have players involved this coming week with first team duties," Cahn said. "We'll have to refocus our attention on the individual development of the players and there'll be times when we field inexperienced teams that haven't trained together. But that's the nature of the role that our team plays in the club and it's disappointing that it might affect results; but that's the way it is."
Meanwhile, Macarthur had the misfortune to last week strike a brilliant St George outfit that completely outplayed them in a 4-0 rout at Lynwood Park.
Rams coach Eddie Briscoe conceded that Saints were too good on the night and was disappointed to have a player sent from the field.
"Getting through the game with no injuries is always a good thing for us because we are a small squad," Briscoe told Football NSW. "But having Danny (Lazarevski) sent off is not ideal because obviously we've got to change the system again at the back and they've been doing really well (lately).
"I think we really switched off again tonight, I think we went back to the old days a little bit and thought we were better than what we were. Obviously (we were) coming off two great wins (over Northern Tigers and Hills Brumbies) and that's what we've got to focus on again is where we got those wins and how we performed and get back to that standard. I think they're the positives we've got to look for going for the rest of the season."
Central Coast may be the favourites for this one but the Rams should be treated with respect, just ask Northern Tigers and Hills United.
Spirit FCvs Mounties Wanderers, 7pm, Saturday 15 July, Valentine Sports Park
Spirit FC and Mounties Wanderers will clash in what is certain to be a fiesty battle between two sides that in recent weeks have found some excellent form.
Spirit FC came back from a goal down and escaped with a last-gasp 3-2 victory over Bankstown City at Jensen Park on Sunday, a win that saw them jump from second last on the table into a log-jam of five clubs in equal sixth; while Mounties stole the spoils from Central Coast Mariners after trailing 2-0 at halfime.
Spirit coach David Perkovic was pleased with his side's result but not so happy with the performance.
"I'm happy with the result but the performance wasn't great," Perkovic told Football NSW. "Jensen Park is a difficult place to play and we made too many errors and didn't play a lot of smart football. But at the end of the day we went there to get three points and we did that. It keeps our season alive so I'm satisfied. It was good to score three goals but disappointing to concede two."
Perkovic added that after playing three games in eight days his side was feeling a little bit fatigued.
"We just ground it out and it's always nice to score goals. Its been a tough week having three games in eight days so that probably played a part in our performance in terms of mental and physical fatigue. But having said that it'll be nice to return to a regular training week and work on some things and get ready for next week.
"Our midweek game against the Berries was very difficult and the boys were content with letting that be an isolated game and just move forward from this point on. That 2-0 loss against the Berries has been our only glitch in the second round so hopefully we can keep getting those wins. Hopefully we'll have a few positive training sessions this week and recover in time for our next game against Mounties next Saturday night."
Spirit's form since the second round kicked off six weeks ago has been exceptional, with the Berries' loss their only setback in five games. Momentum at this stage of the season is critical and Perkovic's side could just prove to be a dark horse as the season winds down to its conclusion.
Meanwhile, Mounties Wanderers showed tremendous courage and character to come back from the dead to upset Central Coast Mariners 3-2 at Pluim Park on Saturday, a win that delighted coach Lee Sterrey.
"I'm very proud of the boys, they showed a lot of character to come back from 2-0 down and it's the first time we've gone back-to-back all year," Sterrey told Football NSW. "So I'm really happy."
When asked who stood out for his side, Sterrey replied: "The second half performance from the whole unit was tremendous. Simon Yaeger pulled off two brilliant one-on-one saves at 2-1 down that kept us in the match. Nefta Gonzalez has only been back two weeks and he played the full 90 minutes last night. When we went to a 4-2-4 he was enormous in midfield with our Japanese boy Hiro (Tokuichi). I mean a two-man midfield against a structured 4-3-3 is tough going but they ran their socks off.
"Tai Smith has been enormous for us up front; while young Michael Cklamovski played well after coming on for Reed Taylor who tore a hamstring about 25 minutes into the first half. Young Macca did a huge job, missed a penalty but then scored the winner. Right across the field we had good players. At the back new signing Tommy Mijic is combining well with Todd Halloran. These wins will pick the boys up ten-fold. I'm very happy."
Mounties have been something of a sleeping giant this season and with some excellent form on the board, they have a golden opportunity to press their premiership aspirations even further this weekend.
Hills United vs North Shore Mariners, 7.30pm, Saturday 15 July, Lilys Football Centre
Hills United host North Shore Mariners at Seven Hills on Saturday night and with just seven rounds remaining of the regular season, both sides will be desperate to win.
Hills smashed Western Sydney Wanderers 4-1 in a well-planned tactical victory at Sydney United Sports Centre on Saturday night.
Smarting from a 3-2 loss to Bankstown Berries last week, Hills were looking for something different to upset a Wanderers side that had the previous week regained its mojo with a win over Blacktown Spartans.
Brumbies coach Dan Sheppard said his side executed their game plan perfectly.
"We executed our game plan really well, capitalised on a few moments and got the result that we wanted," Sheppard told Football NSW. "Everyone had a really top performance and everyone did everything that was asked of them and they mostly completed it in the full 90 minutes.
"That win would be right up there as one of our best games of the season. Wanderers' goal came from a mistake that they capitalised on and we didn't really give them too much of a sniff. We did a couple of different tactical things but we hadn't done in the past."
The past month hasn't been an easy one for Hills, with injuries, suspensions and the departure of key players making the second round of the competition a major challenge.
But Sheppard's team has continued to create opportunities and it was only a matter of time before those chances were converted into goals. They'll be hoping to create and convert just as many when they face the Mariners this weekend.
Blacktown Spartans vs Mt Druitt Town Rangers, 5pm, Sunday 16 July, Blacktown Football Park
Blacktown Spartans host Mt Druitt Town Rangers in a match that is of vital importance to both sides.
While Blacktown sit in second-last on the table, they're only two points behind Rangers, who are among five teams clinging to equal sixth, so Luis Contigiani's side has an opportunity to close the gap as the end of the regular season beckons on the horizon.
Spartans beat North Shore Mariners 1-0 at Blacktown Football Park last Saturday to earn their third win in four matches, a performance that pleased Contigiani after his side was forced to play with 10 players for most of the second half.
"After Richard Blanco was sent off we played with 10 men for most of the second half, so it was a great effort," Contigiani told Football NSW.
"North Shore play direct football, they try to get goals through aerial scrambles and direct balls into the box. That's how they try to unsettle you."
When asked what impressed him the most about his side's performance, Contigiani replied: "To be down to 10 men at nil-all and to be able to take the lead and then hold onto that lead made me really happy. I was very impressed with centre backs Emmanuel Elali and Ben Ansah. Ben has changed us. When we brought Ben over he was playing 20s for Mounties but I saw potential in him and he has changed things for us at the back. We're now a lot more secure, more disciplined. There's better communication. He had a tremendous game. Striker Alex Boyadijan was a workhorse. Although he didn't score a goal, his work off the ball was unbelievable. I'm very proud of those boys."
However, Contigiani told Football NSW that despite the positives to emerge from the win, he'll be struggling for numbers for this weekend's clash against Mt Druitt.
"Brendon Bezzina had to come off early in the first half (against North Shore) after rolling his ankle and this week I am so thin for numbers that I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't have eleven to start with. I'm going to have to bring up players from the 20s to actually start and sit on the bench. We're going to be really stretched for numbers."
Mt Druitt meanwhile, will be hoping to recover from a 3-0 defeat to Marconi, a scoreline that coach Aidan Desmond said flattered the winners.
"We were right in the game," Desmond told Football NSW. "It was a fairly even game until they scored (their first goal). We then turned possession over in the box and suddenly it was 2-0. That was pretty much it. At 1-0 we felt like we were right in the game but to concede another one within a minute kind of broke us a little bit. Then they got the third. They were goals from our errors rather than being broken down, which was disappointing."
"We went out there with a plan and we stuck to the plan. I can't fault the effort, the effort was fantastic. I was super proud about the effort our guys put in.
"It was a flattering scoreline, it certainly wasn't a 3-0 game. They're a class above but we matched them for 70 odd minutes. The scoreline definitely flattered them."
St George vs Bankstown Berries, 5pm, Sunday 16 July, Fraser Park
St George host Bankstown Berries at Fraser Park on Sunday in what could be a tricky clash for Terry Palapanis's high-flying side.
A Bruno Pivato hat-trick led Saints to a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Macarthur Rams last Saturday, reinforcing beyond any reasonable doubt that they're a serious premiership threat in 2017. But the Berries, who last week held Northern Tigers to a scoreless draw and remain unbeaten in their last three matches, will be a worthy opponent and won't go down without a fight.
Saints' 4-0 scoreline over the hapless Rams might have been impressive but it could so easily have been even more; with the visitor's turning on an exhibition late in the second half, and carving the Rams up at will, only to miss a multitude of chances in front of goal.
Indeed, such was Saints' dominance in the final 15 minutes that they created enough opportunities to score ten goals. But it wasn't to be.
As expected, Saints coach Terry Palapanis was delighted with the result.
"All in all it was a great performance, the boys are buzzing," Palapanis told Football NSW. "Again we were very good, we were clinical except for in the last 15-20 minutes when we missed quite a few chances. We're just on the right path, everything's working out for us."
Palapanis added that despite the bucket load of goals, the highlight of the match for him was achieving the first clean sheet of the season. "The highlight (for me) is clean sheet, it's the first one of the season. The main focus (in the game) was (getting) the clean sheet. We know we can score goals so that's definitely the highlight of the night for me."
Meanwhile, Bankstown Berries will scrap for every ball and they'll get in the face of a St George side whose recent form has been irresistible. The Berries have climbed to sixth equal on the table and their standing hasn't come by good fortune. It has been achieved by hard work, grit, determination and spirit, key ingredients that will play a huge part in the outcome of this Sunday's game.
Berries' player coach Perry Moustakas should be pleased with his side's efforts in recent weeks and he'll be priming his boys to dig deep for yet another major challenge.
-By Derek Royal, Football NSW Reporter