Round 22 of the PlayStation 4 National Premier Leagues' 2 NSW Men's competition kicks off this weekend when Central Coast Mariners host Western Sydney Wanderers in a mouth-watering matchup at Pluim Park.
With just a point separating the A-League academy teams on the ladder, Western Sydney sit one spot above the Mariners in fourth place, so winning the spoils will be critical as the regular season winds down and semi-finals places go up for grabs.
The Football NSW cameras will be at Lynwood Park on Saturday night where Macarthur host Bankstown Berries in the Match of the Round, while in other matches, Northern Tigers take on Mt Druitt Town Rangers in another juicy matchup; Marconi face Mounties Wanderers; Blacktown Spartans host Spirit FC; North Shore Mariners travel to St George and Hills face Bankstown City Lions.
Only 13 points separate second-placed St George from 13th-placed Spirit FC, so with just five rounds to go before the end of the regular season, every side except bottom-placed Bankstown City Lions are in the running to play finals football.
Match of the Round
Macarthur Rams v Bankstown Berries, 7pm, Saturday 29 July, Lynwood Park
Macarthur Rams host Bankstown Berries in Saturday's PS4 NPL 2 NSW Men's Match of the Round at Lynwood Park and both sides will hope to have recovered from midweek duties against Sydney FC and MetroStars respectively.
Macarthur face the A-League champions in a trial match, while the Berries' matchup against MetroStars is a crucial Round of 32 FFA Cup clash. How each side recovers from these matches will play a huge bearing when they take to the field at Lynwood on Saturday night.
Regardless of their midweek results, both sides go into their clash with impressive wins last weekend.
Macarthur upset Mounties Wanderers 2-1 last Saturday, with Argentinian import Marcelo Turdera scoring the winner in the 90th minute. Turdera's goal was his sixth from as many games, proving that his acquisition has been a shrewd one for the struggling Rams.
Macarthur opened the scoring through Damian Travis in the 68th minute, but Mounties equalised in the 86th before Turdera struck home the winner right on the stroke of fulltime.
As expected, Rams' coach Eddie Briscoe was delighted with the win and praised his side for their fighting qualities and ability to take their chances.
"To be fair, Mounties controlled the game and they had a lot of chances," Briscoe told Football NSW. "But the difference was, we took ours and they didn't."
Briscoe praised goalkeeper Nikodin Matic for his heroics between the sticks but he also stressed that the win was the result of a solid team performance.
"My whole back four was solid and my forward line Damian Travis and Marcelo (Turdera) did a lot of work; holding the ball up, creating, chasing, fighting. But then again, my midfield did a lot of work too. Like Mason Versi had a couple of good runs and did some nice things.
"But when we do well it's a team performance because we don't have standouts. As a unit, when we're successful it's because everyone's playing well. We have to be 100 per cent every week and everyone has to pull their weight."
When asked what he expected of the Berries, Briscoe laughed: "They've got an FFA Cup match midweek and we've got a friendly against Sydney FC so hopefully they'll run out of legs and they'll be knackered for Saturday night.
"But seriously, I'm expecting a real physical workmanlike game. They're a team that can defend very well and actually go forward and score. Look, to keep Central Coast to zero, not many teams do that do they, so the Berries are doing something right. To do that they must structurally be very good; they must be fighting for each other and obviously they're taking the chances they're creating. It will be a very good battle."
Despite the victory over Mounties, Macarthur remain in 13th place on the ladder, so their clash with sixth-placed Berries is vital if they're to make the climb towards a place in the semi-finals.
Meanwhile, the Berries caused a major upset when they beat Central Coast Mariners 2-0 at The Crest last Saturday. The two-goal victory was especially significant as it was the first time this season that the high-flying Mariners have been held goalless.
While the defence played their hearts out, Hyams Tomohiro and Gavin Forbes scored the decisive goals in what could be a major turning point in the Berries' season.
The Berries sit in sixth equal on the league table alongside Mt Druitt Town Rangers but with five rounds remaining of the regular season, player coach Perry Moustakas isn't getting carried away.
"I've been talking about inconsistency for a long time now and after the loss to Blacktown Spartans (in Round 17) the team sat down and had a bit of a chat between ourselves and set some targets," Moustakas told Football NSW.
"Since then the boys have been superb. Central Coast are a possession-based team and they had their fair share of the ball last night but we definitely made it hard for them to create opportunities. I feel like we fully deserved the three points. But we need to finish the season strongly and we don't want this to be a little patch. We want to continue our good form all the way through (to the semis)."
Moustakas added that his side needed to be consistent to achieve their goals and pointed to the close nature of the league to stress his point.
"It's a funny league. A few weeks ago we were rock bottom with Bankstown City Lions and it's amazing that from second place on the ladder to second last (place) there's only 13 points separating the teams. There's still five games to go so whoever's second could eventually end up finishing second last, it's that close.
"Its definitely been a season of who rocks up on the day and that's why we've been talking about being consistent. We've been trying to minimise our mistakes and be as hard as we can be to break down and make life really hard for our opponents. The small details have been the difference for us in the past few weeks."
When asked what he expected of Macarthur, Moustakas replied: "It's not an easy place to go and it'll definitely be cold. They also had a good win today (against Mounties) but we're looking forward to the game. We're definitely looking forward to it."
Central Coast Mariners v Western Sydney Wanderers, 5pm, Saturday 29 July, Pluim Park
Central Coast Mariners and Western Sydney Wanderers will be playing for A-League academy bragging rights when they clash at Pluim Park this Saturday.
With just a point separating the teams on the ladder, Western Sydney sit one spot above the Mariners in fourth place, so winning the spoils will be critical as the regular season winds down and semi-finals places go up for grabs.
Despite the Mariners' shock 2-0 loss at Bankstown Berries last week and Western Sydney's inconsistency over the past two months, both sides are in a good place.
The Mariners became the latest victims of the Berries' home ground - The Crest Athletic Centre - which has proved to be something of a graveyard for visiting sides. But despite the setback, coach Ben Cahn is sure to have his young side primed and ready for the Red and Black challenge.
Central Coast have played some scintillating football this season and with the likes of Duncan Stewart, Brenton Fox and Lachlan Wales banging home the goals, have at times looked irresistible and near unbeatable.
It's no secret they can score goals, after all, the Mariners have scored 57 so far this season - one more than league leaders Marconi - while they've also shored up their defence and continue to create through the midfield.
But the Wanderers pose a different challenge and after the surprise departure of coach Trevor Morgan last week and the side's last-gasp victory over second-placed St George, Central Coast will need to be on song to beat their A-League rivals.
The Wanderers played some wonderful football against Saints, especially in the first half, passing wth pinpoint accuracy, moving swiftly in transition and creating several opportunities, with Kyle Cimenti, Matthew Lecce, Tariq Maia and Mathieu Cordier leading the way.
The Wanderers were precise and took the lead after half an hour when a wicked cross from Emmanuel Gonzalez was deflected into the net by Saints' defender Ali Nasreddine.
The Wanderers continued to attack wherever they saw the openings: out wide, through the middle and over the top, they kept coming like bees to a honey pot.
Wanderers led 1-0 at the break but had to dig in and fight with desperation as St George mounted a rearguard action that saw them equalise in bizarre fashion in the 73rd minute.
Young Wanderers goalkeeper Mackenzie Syron was brilliant and after a barrage of attacks where he was forced into making three miraculous saves from point blank range, Saints fired home the equaliser amongst a melee of players. The finish may have been ugly but it was enough to level the scores.
With the match heading for a draw Western Sydney's Lachlan Campbell headed home the winner from a Manny Gonzalez free kick in the third minute of stoppage time to claim the spoils.
"It was a very difficult game, an extremely difficult game," Wanderers' assistant coach Arthur Diles told Football NSW. "They're a very good side, they're not second (on the table) by fluke. It was a game that we had to be ready for. Physically we had to be ready because they're a team that likes to get forward quickly and play quite direct so it was always going to be a difficult game physically. I think our boys were excellent tonight in dealing with that."
When asked what impressed him the most about his team's performance, Diles replied: "The energy and the performance they put in physically. Some of them have been maybe lacking a little bit in tough encounters but I think tonight they really fought hard; they didn't stop. They made it difficult for St George and they dealt with the pressure quite well."
It's this newfound grit and determination, combined with the Wanderers' precocious talent and ability to create that will cause problems for Central Coast on Saturday. But like most clashes between these two sides, the football will be pure and the talent on display will be among the best this country has to offer.
Northern Tigers v Mt Druitt Town Rangers, 6.30pm, Saturday 29 July, North Turramurra Recreational Area
Northern Tigers host Mt Druitt Town Rangers at North Turramurra on Saturday in a critical matchup between teams that are only separated by five points on the table.
The Tigers miraculously escaped with a one-all draw at North Shore Mariners last Sunday after going behind in the 86th minute, while Mt Druitt thumped a hapless Hills United 4-1 at Popondetta the day before.
Tigers coach Mark McCormick has been pleased with the way his side has been progressing, especially with the newcomers who've come in to replace the likes of striker Ryan Peterson and goalkeeper Harrison Devenish-Meares, who recently accepted scholarships to play college ball in America.
The Scotsman has honed his side into a skilled fighting unit that thrives on a high workrate, ability to hold possession and nous for creating opportunities. They also play what many opposing coaches refer to as an unorthodox shape, which can be hard to combat; and are one of the most stylish footballing sides in the competition.
The Tigers have always been one of the stronger clubs in the second tier but this season there seems to be something special going on up at North Turramurra.
So what's McCormick's secret?
"There is no secret," the Glaswegian replied. "The players work hard. They want to come to training and they want to work hard. They trust the coaching staff and there are a lot of people around the club who are working hard at different levels. We're all trying to get the Tigers into the best possible position we can take the club and everyone's buying into that.
"If you come and sit on the (first grade) bench from 18s or 20s they're buying into it. Even the players who've been on the bench and haven't been getting a lot of playing time have been fantastic, they've really worked their backsides off to put themselves in this position and they deserve to be where they are now."
But as always, the canny Scot refuses to get ahead of himself.
"We've not achieved anything yet," McCormick added. "And there's a lot of really good teams in the competition. If we want to make the playoffs we're going to have to be at our best. We're not going to get carried away."
Meanwhile, Mt Druitt's win over Hills United last week proved that they're still a force to be reckoned with. Losing star striker Kuag Reec to an MCL injury has hit the club hard but they bounced back in the best way possible with a stellar performance against Hills that won the admiration of coach Aidan Desmond.
"We were quite good across the park and we maintained good quality possession," Desmond told Football NSW. "We managed to keep the ball pretty well and created chances and put four of them away."
Desmond added that while there weren't any standouts in what was essentially a good team performance, the win was a very pleasing one, with young first grade debutant Trent Sierra making a solid impression.
"Trent Sierra made his first grade debut for us and he had a really solid game," Desmond said. "He's still eligible for Under 20s and he came in and did well at left back. Lord Darkoh was suspended and Trent fitted in very well.
"We're low on numbers but that's the way it is this time of the year. We'll just keep going the way we're going and see what happens."
So what's Desmond expecting of the Tigers?
"They're one of the form sides of the competition. I expect them to play high tempo and high possession. They're quite an effective team with the ball. I think they’re very strong in the middle of the park and if they get chances they normally take them. We need to limit the amount of chances we give them. We'll have to be good but it's certainly doable."
Marconi Stallions v Mounties Wanderers, 3pm, Sunday 30 July, Marconi Stadium
Premiership favourites Marconi will be looking to extend their winning streak when they face a Mounties outfit coached by former Stallion Lee Sterrey at Bossley Park this Sunday.
The Stallions are definite favourites to win the spoils this weekend. They lead the competition by 12 points over second-placed St George and they're playing with such clinical precision that winning has become second nature. They're the most talented team in the competition and with former Socceroo Michael Beauchamp leading a talented group of former A-League players such as Sean Rooney, Mirjan Pavlovic and Marko Jesic, they've showed that they have the quality to take the Stallions back to the top tier of state football.
Finally, coach Peter Tsekenis is a mentor who commands respect from his players and with his charisma and footballing nous, the former Olyroo has done wonders since he arrived at Marconi Stadium a matter of months ago.
Facing them is a Mounties outfit that has a ton of potential but hasn't quite found the consistency of the top echelon teams.
Yes, they've had their moments and recently embarked on a three-game winning streak. But it has been the games they should have won that has cost Sterrey's side. Games where they created several opportunities without being able to convert. Games where defensive errors have been punished by the opposition.
Mounties have some quality within their ranks. Tommy Mijic and Todd Halloran have formed a solid combination at the back; Neftali Gonzalez continues to control the midfield and is arguably the best player in the league, while sharpshooter Tai Smith has lived up to his reputation as a prolific goalscorer.
Mounties are certainly contenders for the semi-finals, there's no doubt about that. But with just five rounds to go before the end of the regular season, they'll need to get some runs on the board asap if they want to climb away from their current position of eighth on the ladder.
Doing so at Marconi's expense is one hell of an assignment but there';s no doubt that Sterrey's band of merry men will give it their best shot this Sunday.
Blacktown Spartans v Spirit FC, 5pm, Sunday 30 July, Blacktown Football Park
Blacktown Spartans host Spirit FC at Blacktown Football Park on Sunday and both sides will be desperate to take home the spoils.
Spartans demolished Bankstown City Lions 6-0 at Jensen Park last Sunday, heaping more misery on a side that is staring at the prospect of relegation to NPL 3 at the end of the season.
Michael Konestabo scored four goals, while Koji Hori and Alessandro Pecora grabbed one each.
In a shocking incident, Spartans' striker Garang Awac was rushed to hospital after suffering a broken leg following a horrendous challenge four minutes into first half stoppage time, an incident that saw the Lions' reduced to 10 men. With the Spartans leading 1-0, through Michael Konestabo the match was stopped for around 40 minutes as an ambulance was called to transport the young striker to hospital. Blacktown struck again through Hori to lead 2-0 at halftime.
The visitors lifted their game in the second half and went on the rampage, scoring additional goals in the 74th, 82nd and 85th minutes, romping to their biggest win of the season.
"The boys were unbelievable," Spartans coach Luis Contigiani told Football NSW. "The combinations and some of the goals we scored, the way we moved the ball with speed, was unbelievable.
"We're starting to believe in ourselves again. Even with a skeleton side, the boys are believing. At the end of the day, the way we did things: the discipline, the belief amongst the boys, gave me a lot of joy and eased the pain from what happened to Garang. If we didn't cop that six-point suspension earlier in the season we could be in the top four, but that's life and we'll just keep on taking things one week at a time. We might even scrape into the semi-finals."
The Spartans have only lost one of their last six matches and have found a rich vein of form that has them on track for an unlikely appearance in the semis. Always the optimist, Contigiani lives by the glass half full mantra; one that has been working wonders in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Spirit were last weekend given a footballing lesson by league leaders Marconi, who rattled the back of the net four times in a clinical 4-1 victory.
The Stallions led 4-0 before Spirit's Jake Harris struck home a consolation goal from the penalty spot in the 68th minute.
Spirit coach David Perkovic was disappointed with the result but conceded that the Stallions were simply too good on the day.
"Marconi obviously have a lot of quality in their team and credit to (Stallions coach) Peter Tsekenis, who has got them playing in a structured way that doesn't allow the opposition to get into the game," Perkovic told Football NSW.
"The two goals we conceded in the first half were from mistakes. They've got the quality to pounce on mistakes and to hurt you. The second goal we gave away cheap possession on the halfway line and through quick transition they put the ball over the top and scored."
Perkovic added that his side tried to lift their performance in the second half but Marconi simply went up a gear and scored two more before Harris grabbed a consolation goal from the spot to give the scoreline some respectability.
"In the second half we competed well and definitely played to the final whistle," Perkovic said. "In terms of the football, the second half was a little more balanced and whether that was because they just took the foot off the pedal or we lifted a little bit, I'm not sure. We competed but they had the quality to capitalise on their opportunities. Credit to Marconi, they were far too good for us today."
Spirit lie in 12th position on the league table but still have an opportunity to make the six if they can string together some wins in the final five rounds of the regular season. Perkovic's team has had their moments this season and actually went on an unbeaten run of four matches at the start of the second round. Witht he addition of Andre Schroeder and Ryan Johnstone, Spirit seemed to have finally added the missing pieces to their puzzle.
But lately the side's inconsistency that has been their Achilles Heel, something they'd like to rectify beginning with this Sunday's matchup at Blacktown.
"We're still not where we want to be, so we've still got a bit of work to do," which continues against the Spartans this Sunday.
St George v North Shore Mariners, 5pm, Sunday 30 July, Seymour Shaw Park
St George and North Shore Mariners will clash at Seymour Shaw Park this Sunday in a matchup that is vital to both sides.
Saints suffered a gut-wrenching 2-1 defeat to Western Sydney Wanderers last week, while the Mariners allowed Northern Tigers to snatch a share of the spoils after taking the lead with just four minutes remaining in their clash at Northbridge Oval.
Saints coach Terry Palapanis was disappointed by his side's performance against the Wanderers and with Spanish ace Juan Carlos Romero out for the season, his side's premiership hopes have taken a massive hit given the striker's brilliance in front of goal.
Romero, who has scored 18 goals - just one less than Marconi's Sean Rooney - was involved in a sickening collision against Bankstown Berries a fortnight ago, an incident that has him sidelined for the rest of the season. His instinct and workrate off the ball will be sorely missed by a side that has looked like serious premiership contenders with their swashbuckling style and desire to fight for one another.
Saints lacked their usual spirit in the first half against Western Sydney and trailed 1-0 after 30 minutes when Ali Nasreddine deflected a cross into his own net. But Palapanis's side bounced back in the second half, turning the screws on the young Wanderers and eventually grabbing an equaliser through Daniel Mitwali. Somehow Western Sydney grabbed the winner three minutes into stoppage time, when Lachlan Campbell rose above the defence to head home a free kick floated in by Manny Gonzalez.
Palapanis was disappointed that his side lost focus and conceded from a set piece so late in the game and admitted that they needed to improve if they were to be a force during the finals series.
"(The loss against Western Sydney was) disappointing yeah, copping a goal from a set piece in the 93rd minute," Palapanis said in a post-match interview with Football NSW. "We weren't on our game but we did have some chances. The stats said we had some 20 odd shots at goal and they had about 12 or 13, but yeah, disappointing. They're a good side, they've got some good players and their transition's dynamic. We needed to be on our game and we weren't. We cop it."
When asked what the difference was between the two sides, Palapanis replied: "They put their chances away. We never. In the first half we were slow and it took us a while to adjust to their play. They're quite mobile. But just before we copped that goal we should have scored one or two at least. Our finishing was poor and obviously we missed our striker (Juan Carlos Romero), who's out for the year. We'll do a debrief with the coaches, look at the video and go from there."
Meanwhile, in the battle of Sydney's Northside, North Shore Mariners and Northern Tigers shared the spoils one-all at Northbridge Oval on Sunday.
Mariners took the lead in the 86th minute only to concede the equaliser three minutes later, a lapse in concentration that would have disappointed coach Joe Haywood.
The Mariners were at one stage the form team in the competition and were looked upon as likely semi-finalists but then they went through something of a midseason slump and struggled to get a result.
But in the past fortnight, Haywood's side has found some form with a robuest win against Hills United and an unlucky draw with a lucky Northern Tigers.
With just five rounds remaining before the end of the regular season, Haywood will be working his boys hard, honing their playing style in an effort to retrieve the x-factor that saw them earlier this season strike fear into the opposition as they went on a six game unbeaten streak and climbed the table.
Their robust and direct style may not appeal to everyone, but when they're on song and everyone's singing from the same hymn sheet, it's effective and very tough to combat. It's then that the Mariners are at their most lethal. It's then when teams fear them like no other.
"We're trying to take each game as it comes," Haywood said. "We're competitive, and we're going to cause teams problems. We're always going to be a threat, we're always going to be a danger."
St George will need to roll up their sleeves and be ready to fight for every inch against an opponent that will be prepared to battle from start to finish.
Hills United v Bankstown City, 8pm, Sunday 30 July, Lilys Football Centre
Hills United will be looking to resurrect their season when they host a Bankstown City Lions outfit that has conceded a whopping 11 goals in their last two games.
Hills have themselves struggled in the past month or so with just one win in six games, but have the opportunity to beat a dispirited opponent whose confidence has been crushed by a stressful battle to avoid relegation.
Hills currently lie in equal 13th place on the table, just one spot above the Lions. And after looking like contenders early in the season, the newly-promoted outfit seem to have lost their mojo, which is strange considering the quality of their roster and the scintillating football they're capable of playing.
Desire will play a huge part in the outcome of this clash and given the Lions' recent performances, Hills must be outright favourites to get a result.
Hills' cause hasn't been helped by the loss of goalscoring ace Peter Cejka, who transferred to Blacktown City a couple of months ago. The club also lost Victor Anyimba to Parramatta FC, while Jackson Franich has retired.
All three losses have had an impact but it's Cejka's loss that has been the hardest felt, with his record of 12 goals from nine matches, not to mention his ability to hold up the ball, key components to Hills' success in the first half of the season. It's also no coincidence that since Cejka's departure, Hills haven't been able to win a game. Coach Dan Sheppard knows his side has an opportunity to rectify that when they run onto Lilys late this Sunday evening.
Meanwhile, Bankstown's 6-0 capitulation at the hands of Blacktown Spartans last week showed the Lions hadn't learnt anything from their 5-0 defeat to league leader's Marconi a fortnight ago.
In a performance that disappointed their small band of fans, their coach and most of all, themselves, the Lions lacked fire and determination, especially given their survival in tier two football was hanging by the thinnest of margins.
Unfortunately, with just five rounds remaining of the regular season, the once mighty Lions look certain to be playing third tier football next season. But their players still have a chance to end the season on a high note, starting from this Saturday's clash against Hills.
It's difficult to work out what has actually happened at Bankstown this year, a club with a rich history and one that has always been a serious contender for premiership honours.
The loss of outstanding coach Leo Carle and the subsequent departure of almost the entire first grade squad in the off-season certainly got the ball rolling; and that was followed by coaching issues, injuries and the inability to maintain consistent selection on a week-to-week basis.
Coach Mile Todoroski has done all he can to stem the tide and truth be told, until recent weeks the Lions have had their moments, playing with a spirit and zest that kept their opponents honest.
Whoever takes to the field in the red and black this weekend has the chance to keep Hills United honest. They also have the chance to prove that the Lions refuse to lie down and die, even though their situation appears to be a hopeless one. The first step towards achieving that end is to ignore the previous two weeks and play with the same determination and desire this side has shown they're capable of.
-By Derek Royal, Football NSW Reporter