Round 19 of the PlayStation 4 National Premier Leagues 2 NSW Men's competition kicks off this weekend, with Macarthur Rams and St George taking centre stage in the Match of the Round at Lynwood Park on Saturday.
St George has firmed as a serious premiership contender and their sterling performances see them sitting pretty in outright second on the table, a handy five points clear of third-placed Northern Tigers.
Marconi meanwhile, are looking ominous and they'll make life very challenging for Mt Druitt when they visit Popondetta Park on Saturday.
In other matches, Central Coast host Mounties Wanderers, Northern Tigers entertain Bankstown Berries, North Shore Mariners visit Blacktown Spartans, Western Sydney Wanderers tackle Hills Brumbies, and in the only Sunday match of the round, Bankstown City host Spirit FC.
As always, expect the unexpected.
Match of the Round
Macarthur Rams vs St George, 7pm, Saturday 8 July, Lynwood Park
Macarthur Rams and St George will do battle in the Match of the Round at Lynwood Park this Saturday, with both sides eager to continue on their winning ways.
After going through a rough patch where they lost five-in-a-row, the Rams have suddenly found some excellent form in the past fortnight and won't be easy pickings for a St George outfit that has firmed as a genuine premiership contender.
In consecutive games Macarthur has beaten two of the more stylish footballing sides in the competition - Northern Tigers and Hills Brumbies, clubs that have genuine ambitions of winning the competition.
The boys from Sydney's southwestern fringes will be looking to add St George to their list of big name victims.
"I've got an idea of how they play and they're a very good football team," Rams coach Eddie Briscoe said of the Saints. "They're organised, they work hard for each other. They're second on the table and they're there for a reason. They're a good team and they're well-coached, it's going to be another tough game, just like all of them."
Macarthur's acquisition of Argentinian striker Marcelo Turdera has been a shrewd one, with three goals in his first two games an indication of his quality. The club has also signed new players to cover the loss of Simon Valastro, who has gone overseas; and the injured Frank Martey, who requires an operation. Striker Damian Travis also faces some time on the sidelines, but Briscoe isn't using their absence as an excuse.
"We've got a couple of players to come in but it's what happens on the day isn't it?" Briscoe said. "It's all on the day. We'll be ready for them, we have to be."
Meanwhile, St George will be full of confidence after last week's 2-1 victory over Central Coast Mariners. Saints raced to an early 2-0 lead and enjoyed a rare first half where everything they touched turned to gold. The second half though, was a completely different story as they ran out of gas and were run ragged by a vibrant and energetic opponent. How the young Coasters didn't capitalise big time on Saints' parlous physical state is bewildering.
Saints coach Terry Palapanis was delighted with the win but admitted that his side tired badly after an energy-sapping first half.
"We had a brilliant first half and totally dominated the game but we should have been up by more than 2-0," Palapanis told Football NSW. "Everything seemed to work in the first half. We defended well, we pressed well. We moved the ball well, we got in behind them and we varied our tactics. We executed our game plan perfectly and that included stopping them from playing.
"But we just didn't show up for the second half, we were poor. The boys gave the first half all they had and we tired badly and weren't good at all in the second half. We were knackered. But I rate Central Coast very highly and I'm happy we escaped with the win."
Saints' striker Juan Carlos Romero opened the scoring against Central Coast with his 15th goal of the season, just two behind Marconi's Golden Boot favourite Sean Rooney, and Macarthur will need to exert plenty of pressure on the Spaniard if they hope to get something out of the game. They'll also need to watch playmaker Bruno Pivato, whose return from Bankstown City has given the side an extra dimension, not to mention another goal-scoring option as proved by his haul of four goals from as many games.
Despite their respective positions on the league ladder (second and eighth), once the whistle blows for kickoff on Saturday night, there will be no favourites and no underdogs, just two teams battling for premiership points.
Mt Druitt Town Rangers vs Marconi Stallions, 3pm, Saturday 8 July, Popondetta Park
Mt Druitt Town Rangers host league leaders Marconi Stallions on Saturday afternoon in a match Aidan Desmond's side will be desperate to win after struggling in their last two outings.
Rangers last week copped a 2-1 loss to Spirit FC, while two weeks ago they fell victim to bottom-placed Bankstown City by the same scoreline in the upset of the round.
Mt Druitt's inconsistent form has been frustrating for the club, especially after they'd recently beaten the resilient North Shore Mariners and Mounties Wanderers on consecutive weekends. At one point, they'd even won four of their last five matches, a record Desmond attributed to the side's consistency of selection.
Semi-finalists last season, the club from Sydney's western suburbs strengthened their squad over the summer, with former Blacktown Spartans goalkeeper Carlos Saliadarre, Sydney United’s Alex Vlismas, Andre Guzman from Bonnyrigg White Eagles, Mitchell Mclintock from Southern Districts, Parramatta’s Aram Tayebi, and Western Sydney’s Lachlan Roberts, adding quality to a side hopeful of again featuring in the big games at the end of the season. Tayebi and Mclintock have since departed, but the return of classy striker Kuag Reec has been an inspiration while the acquisition of Kristian Vlismas from Sydney United 58 has added even more to a side brimful of talent.
The clay is there, now it's a matter of Desmond, who just returned from a month away in Europe, doing his best Michelangelo impersonation to create something special. Hopefully for the locals, the renaissance will begin this weekend when they tackle a strong Stallions outfit that looks ominously good as the season gathers momentum.
There has been a huge change out Bossley Park way since former Olyroo Peter Tsekenis took the reins. Tsekenis has managed to harness the egos that come with being the most talented group of players in the competition; a group that boasts a former Socceroo and a number of ex-A Leaguers, players so far ahead of the opposition that they should be light years ahead on the table - far more than the seven-point lead they currently enjoy.
But for whatever reason, before Tsekenis arrived the Stallions only played in fits and starts and while they won more than they lost, some of the losses were horrendous, none moreso than the 4-0 drubbing at North Shore Mariners earlier in the season.
The current Stallions outfit is a completely different beast. It's professional. It's clinical. It's lethal. And everyone is buying into what Tsekenis has to offer, not just the players but the officials and supporters too.
With Sean Rooney spearheading the team's charge with 18 goals to his name, and Mirjan Pavlovic providing equal doses of skill and aggression, Marconi will be a tough nut to crack, not just for Mt Druitt this weekend but for every opponent they face in the future.
Central Coast Mariners vs Mounties Wanderers, 5pm, Saturday 8 July, Pluim Park
Central Coast Mariners will be looking to rebound from last week's 2-1 loss to St George when they host Mounties Wanderers at Pluim Park on Saturday.
The young Mariners started nervously against a rampant St George who raced to a 2-0 lead in 12 minutes before running out of gas late in the first half.
Central Coast pulled two goals back in the second half only to have the equaliser disallowed after the linesman ruled that the ball had crossed the touchline in the leadup. With Saints in such dire straits and running on empty, the young Coasters couldn't capitalise and ultimately returned to Gosford empty-handed.
The loss was the Mariners' first setback in eight matches and coach Ben Cahn will have his young guns focused on getting their season back on track when they face a Mounties outfit fresh from good 2-0 win over Bankstown City Lions.
"I'm proud of our players and how we responded after halftime and we showed a very good level of performance in the second half," Cahn said. "We were unfortunate not to come away with at least a draw."
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. But with the competition being such a tight affair, the Mariners remain in fifth place, one position behind fellow A-League academy side Western Sydney Wanderers.
After struggling for most of the season, Lee Sterrey's Mounties finally snapped a three-match losing streak when they kept a clean sheet and scored twice against Bankstown last Sunday. But while Sterrey was delighted to earn three points, he found it ironic that on a day when his side didn't play as well as they have been, the performance was good enough to win.
"We've played better and lost," Sterrey said. "But it's all about taking chances and out of 10 chances we took two, which was enough for the win. We weren't at our best but we showed great character. That's enough for me."
When asked what he expected of the Mariners, Sterrey replied: "We've got a tough road trip (to Gosford), and I actually wish we weren't playing Central Coast away. They've probably been the form team after six or eight rounds and they play well at home. They're young guys who never give up and it's going to be a tough ask. But we're looking forward to the challenge."
Northern Tigers vs Bankstown Berries, 6:30pm, Saturday 8 July, North Turramurra Recreation Area
Northern Tigers have an opportunity to get their season back on track after last week's shock loss to Macarthur Rams when they host Bankstown Berries on Saturday evening.
The Berries will be backing up from Wednesday night's catchup game against Spirit FC and their mood is likely to be determined by the outcome of that fixture. Will they be up for their third game in a week or will they be too jaded to trouble a Tigers side that sits in third place on the ladder? Only time will tell.
The Tigers last week announced the departure of striker Ryan Peterson and goalkeeper Harrison Devenish-Meares, key players who have accepted scholarships to play college ball in the USA, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the two youngsters but a serious blow to Mark McCormick's outstanding side.
"Ryan and Harrison have taken up great opportunities for themselves by going to the States on scholarship," McCormick told Football NSW. "But we're integrating three new players into our squad, which is exciting."
Macarthur scored their winner in the 85th minute, a last-gasp defeat that followed a 2-all draw against Central Coast Mariners, a match where the Tigers held a 2-0 lead with just four minutes remaining. McCormick wasn't concerned by either result, or the fact that goals were conceded late in consecutive games.
"We just need to play the game for 90 minutes," McCormick said. "We've only lost two of our last nine games so I'm not too worried about it. The players have been fantastic. They're learning and they're working really hard.
"They (still) 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. My assistant coach; the technical director and 20s coach, 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 (outright third)."
As always, the Scot will be looking to the likes of Jordan Ferrier, Jamie Craig and Michael Rolston to show the way against the Berries
"We've got some guys who've been around the league but we've also got younger boys coming through and are finally developing. The senior guys are teaching them what it means to win in this league."
Meanwhile, regardless of the outcome of Wednesday night's clash against Spirit, Bankstown Berries will gain some confidence from their 3-2 win over Hills last weekend. Player coach Perry Moustakas said that while the win wasn't pretty, it was an important one.
"At the moment, it doesn't matter how we win, we just need to get those three points," Moustakas told Football NSW. "We're in a tough situation.
"I thought we played really good in the first half and we should have been a few up. Coming off probably the worst performance of our season (a 5-4 loss to Blacktown Spartans) to turn it around the way we did midweek (a 2-all draw with Mt Druitt) and then today, I've got to say the heart of the players was exceptional and they'll go to the end. I'm very proud of that."
Despite their lowly position of 12th on the table, the Berries are a tough opponent and shouldn't be underestimated. They're an awkward side to play against and their fighting qualities alone will keep the Tigers honest.
Blacktown Spartans vs North Shore Mariners, 7pm, Saturday 8 July, Blacktown Football Park
Blacktown Spartans host North Shore Mariners in a clash that both sides will be desperate to win.
Spartans are second-last on the table after last week's 3-2 loss to Western Sydney, and while North Shore are still in the mix in seventh equal alongside Macarthur Rams, coach Joe Haywood will be looking for some improvement.
With just two wins from their last six games, the Englishman 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.
"We're trying to take each game as it comes," Haywood said. "We're competitive, and we're going to cause teams problems whether it's through our football, our discipline or our structure, or whether it's set pieces.
"We're always going to be a threat, we're always going to be a danger. That's something I'm working on and will continue to do so."
Meanwhile, Spartans coach Luis Contigiani must wonder what he has done to deserve the cards he has been dealt this season. After being relegated from the top tier, the club lost their entire first grade squad and management but Contigiani returned to the club he loved and instilled in his team of young, inexperienced players a belief that through hard work and persistence, the rewards would come. And they did, with the Spartans riding high in first place for some time before injuries, suspensions and the loss of six points derailed their campaign that now sees them anchored just one place above bottom team Bankstown City Lions.
After six consecutive losses, the Spartans two weeks ago returned to the winner's circle with a 2-0 victory over Macarthur Rams and followed that up with a 5-4 win against the always- difficult Bankstown Berries.
And despite last week's 3-2 loss to Western Sydney Contigiani will have his side primed for the Mariners this weekend.
"The Mariners won't be easy but we're doing our best and that's all we can do."
Western Sydney Wanderers vs Hills Brumbies, 7pm, Saturday 8 July, Sydney United Sports Centre
Western Sydney Wanderers will be looking to win their second match on the trot when they host Hills Brumbies at Edensor Park on Saturday.
The Wanderers returned to the winners' circle for the first time in eight weeks with a 3-2 victory over Blacktown Spartans at Blacktown Football Park last Sunday, a result that sees them sitting in fourth place on the ladder.
Clinging tenuously to fifth place on the competition table, the Wanderers needed a win to not only earn some much-needed competition points, but to also provide confidence to a team of youngsters that, results-wise, hadn't had much to cheer about in the last two months.
But on Sunday, Trevor Morgan's team showed their quality, stroking the ball around with confidence and finishing with a precision that in recent weeks has been missing.
Morgan was pleased with his side's effort and the confidence the win would provide.
"We played quite well, there were some very good patches early in the game, but we didn't finish off with the same quality," Morgan told Football NSW.
"We had several opportunities to score and probably should have done better. We also had an opportunity to keep a clean sheet, which is an area we'd like to improve on. But all in all, most of the performance was pleasing for us, and there were areas where we weren't up to our best. I think Spartans took advantage of that" by scoring two late goals.
"We've had our tough times lately so I guess we've got to be pleased that we've got a victory again because that's always good for everyone's confidence."
Meanwhile, Hills coach Dan Sheppard was bitterly disappointed with his side's 3-2 loss to Bankstown Berries last week, a tough, physical game that saw Greg Giovenali red carded early in the second half.
"(Tonight the) Berries got lucky with many things, the luck of the bounce went their way," Sheppard told Football NSW. "On another day the luck may have gone our way but this year we've had no luck.
"Even with 10 players we were the better team and we had them under the pump. We missed a free header at the end and then we missed an air swing and we could've snatched the points."
The past month hasn't been an easy one for the Brumbies, with three defeats offset by a couple of draws. Indeed, Dan Sheppard's side hasn't won since they beat Mounties in Round 13.
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; and the retirement of Jackson Franich through injury.
Cejka's loss is 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 the Brumbies' 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.
But Sheppard's team is creating opportunities and he'll be hoping that it'll only be a matter of time before before those chances are converted. The Brumbies aren't too far off the pace and sit just two places outside the six. A couple of wins would do wonders for the Brumbies' position on the table, not to mention their confidence. But they'll need to be at their best when they face a Western Sydney side that may just be returning to the form that at the beginning of the season saw them installed as premiership contenders.
Bankstown City vs Spirit FC, 3pm, Sunday 9 July, Jensen Park
Bankstown City Lions and Spirit FC go head-to-head at Jensen Park on Sunday in a match that is critical to both sides.
Bankstown languish in dead last on the table and Spirit have been making some serious noise in the past four weeks.
Spirit extended their unbeaten run to four matches after securing a 2-1 victory over Mt Druitt Town Rangers at Valentine Sports Park last Saturday.
They dominated the first 45 minutes and according to coach David Perkovic, instead of holding a tentative 1-0 halftime lead, should have been ahead by two or three.
"The good thing about the game was that we came out and dominated the first half, and even when the momentum shifted in the second half and the opposition were dominant, we were able to ride out those moments and find our feet once the game settled," Perkovic said. "It was good to know that while you can't dominate the whole 90 minutes, you can be nice and compact and ride the wave."
Perkovic added that his side had found a bit of form and credited newcomers Andre Schroeder and Ryan Johnstone as the missing pieces in his side's puzzle.
"But having said that, we're still not where we want to be (ninth equal on the table), so we've still got a bit of work to do, which continues against the Berries this Wednesday."
With a game in hand, Spirit travel to The Crest to face a Berries side high on a 3-2 win over Hills Brumbies, and with only two points separating the sides on the table, this matchup is critical.
"Now it's all about recovery and trying to put our best foot forward for the Berries this Wednesday," Perkovic said. "If we're able to have a positive outcome against the Berries - and we've been in good form and we want to continue that - we can be around the top six and that's where we want to be."
Two weeks ago Bankstown City Lions stole the spoils in a 2-1 stoppage time victory over Mt Druitt Town Rangers in the PS4 NPL2 NSW Men's Match of the Round at Popondetta Park.
But true to form, Mile Todoroski's struggling side were unable to win consecutive matches when they last week suffered a 2-0 loss at Mounties Wanderers.
"Playing at Popondetta (Park) is very hard so today I'm very pleased with how we played and very pleased with my boys," Todoroski told Football NSW after their upset 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."
With new acquisition Michael Cimino finding his legs after almost a year out through injury and the likes of Huseyin Jasli, Hussein Akil, Aaron D’Mello, Davide Talone and David McMurray leading the charge, Bankstown have enough talented players to cause a few headaches for a Spirit side seeking to extend their unbeaten run to five matches.
But they'll need to be at their best against a side that is gathering momentum nicely at the right time of the season.
-By Derek Royal, Football NSW Reporter