Round 23 of the PlayStation 4 National Premier Leagues 2 NSW Men's competition gets underway this Saturday night when Spirit FC host Hills United in the Match of the Round at Valentine Sports Park.
With just four matches remaining before the end of the regular season, and everyone except Bankstown City Lions in the running for a place in the top six, both sides will be desperate to claim the spoils of victory.
In the only other Saturday match, Mt Druitt Town Rangers entertain St George at Popondetta in what is shaping as an intriguing clash between two sides well and truly in the hunt for a place in the semis.
In Sunday matches, Marconi has the chance to clinch the minor premiership when they host Blacktown Spartans at Marconi Stadium; Bankstown City entertain Northern Tigers; North Shore Mariners host Central Coast; Macarthur Rams journey to Edensor Park to face Western Sydney Wanderers and in another interesting matchup, Mounties face the in-form Bankstown Berries at Valentine.
Match of the Round
Spirit FCvs Hills United, 7:00 PM, Saturday 5 August, Valentine Sports Park
In a critical clash for both sides, Spirit FC host Hills United in this Saturday's PS4 NPL 2 NSW Men's Match of the Round at Valentine Sports Park. Tied in seventh equal on the ladder, the combatants are just two points behind North Shore and Central Coast Mariners, and with just four rounds remaining of the regular season, a win is vital as positions in the six remain undecided.
Only 12 points separate second-placed St George from 13th placed Macarthur Rams, so it's likely that places in the semi-finals won't be decided until the last round, putting extra pressure on teams that hover around the fringes of the green zone.
Spirit and Hills go into this match in winning form, with respective victories over Blacktown Spartans and Bankstown City Lions.
Spirit turned on arguably their most courageous performance of the season to defeat the Spartans 2-0 at Blacktown Football Park last Sunday; while Hills twisted the knife further on a Lions side destined for NPL 3, with a 7-3 win at Lilys.
Spirit had to battle without Andre Carle for most of their game after he was red-carded in the 14th minute. Luckily for the visitors, Daniel Cunningham had already put his side 1-0 up and despite having to play with 10 men, Spirit rose to the challenge and stunned the Spartans with a second goal to Dylan Whitlock in the 55th minute.
Spirit coach David Perkovic was proud of his side's courage and suggested that even though there were still 35 minutes to play after Whitlock scored his goal, he was certain that the 2-0 scoreline rocked the Spartans' confidence.
"The boys showed real character, and got through to halftime unscathed," Perkovic told Football NSW. "Ten minutes into the second half Dylan scored our second goal and even though it was only 10 minutes into the second half, I felt that we'd killed off any hopes of a Spartans comeback. The fact that we were 2-0 up with 10 men really hurt their confidence.
"I was quite pleased with our efforts. Defensively we were very solid and we took our chances. To be honest everyone who took part in the game stood out because to play for 76 minutes with 10 men (and to win) is a fantastic achievement. Everyone deserves credit for today's result."
Despite the win and the quality of the team, Spirit have been frustratingly inconsistent. After an unremarkable first round that left them languishing on the lower half of the table, Perkovic's men showed their true colours and went on an unbeaten streak of four games, a form reversal brought about by a midseason review that delivered a few home truths and the desire to achieve some new targets.
Spirit got the fresh start they craved, with a thumping 4-0 win over the Rams, followed by a draw with Western Sydney and wins over North Shore and Mt Druitt Town Rangers, the last three teams considered to be serious contenders for the top six. Spirit's form against three of the gun sides in the competition, and a Rams side that has kept some of the best teams in the competition honest, proves that on their day, they have the ability to compete with anyone.
Hills meanwhile, have struggled for form, accumulating just 28 points from a possible 66. But, given the closeness of the competition, the newly-promoted club have as much a chance as anyone to earn a place in the semis.
Hills have made a positive impact on the league with their stylish football and ability to foot it with some of the best NPL 2 has to offer, but the last two months have been challenging with Dan Sheppard's side managing just two wins from their last 10 starts. One of those wins was a brilliant 4-1 result over premiership contenders Western Sydney Wanderers, a performance that showed a lot of promise and hope for a reversal in fortune.
But it wasn't to be as Hills then suffered losses to North Shore, Mt Druitt and NPL top tier outfit Hakoah Sydney City East, who somehow escaped with a freakish FFA Cup win to progress to the Round of 16.
Sheppard will be hoping his side can step up to the plate this Saturday and play to their full potential against a side that will be just as desperate as they are to win the spoils. Hills have shown they can do it at various times this season and with such a talented roster, there's no reason why they can't do it again.
Two sides equal on the table. Two sides desperate for points and desperate to play finals football. As a Match of the Round clash, it doesn't get any better than that.
Mt Druitt Town Rangers vs St George 7:00 PM, Saturday 5 August, Popondetta Park
In a clash of the titans, Mt Druitt Town Rangers host St George at Popondetta Park this Saturday.
Unbeaten in their last three starts, Rangers will pose a serious threat to a second-placed Saints side that is currently doing it tough. After losing their last two matches against Western Sydney and North Shore respectively, St George will be hoping to get their campaign back on track with a good showing against Mt Druitt, a side that is always hard ro crack at Popondetta.
Mt Druitt last week thumped Northern Tigers 3-1 in a sterling performance at North Turramurra and actually led 3-0 after Luke Grima scored a brace and Alex Vlismas added one of his own.
Aidan Desmond's Rangers are finding form at the right time of the season, and while the wily coach was pleased with his side's performance, he refused to get carried away.
"It was a good win but we're not getting carried away," Desmond told Football NSW. "We've still got some improvement in us and there are still four matches to play before the end of the season.
"We managed to turn ball over and put them under pressure and just didn't allow them to play with any rhythm. But pressing high and closing down takes its toll and in the last 25 minutes they dominated possession and we just had to dig in.
"We just really rolled our sleeves up last night and stuck to the plan. We beat them in the first round and there was a lot of belief from the boys. We thought that if they went out there and stuck to the same sort of plan as they did in the first round then there was no reason why they couldn't beat them again."
After losing ace striker Kuag Reec to a season-ending MCL injury, Rangers fans were worried that their side would struggle. But Luke Grima has proved to be a worthy replacement.
Desmond added that while there were no standouts in his side's victory, every single one of the 14 men who took to the field made a contribution.
"Even the players who came off the bench and played out of position to finish the job, were good," Desmond said. "It was a really good team performance."
Desmond added that while he was happy with his side's progress, there was still work to be done, especially with the challenge posed by St George.
"St George will be a different ball game but we'll be ready," Desmond told Football NSW. "They've lost their striker (Juan Carlos) Romero but they've still got a lot of quality in there. Bruno Pivato was on fire at one stage too and they have others who can cause us trouble, so we'll need to be on our game to get a result."
Meanwhile, Saints coach Palapanis was bitterly disappointed with his side's performance against North Shore and he knows a repeat performance will deliver the same result.
"We were poor; we were flat, we were pedestrian and we were second to everything. We were everywhere but at Seymour Shaw Park," Palapanis said.
The Saints mentor added that while the Mariners were good, his side allowed far too much time and space to control the tempo of the game.
"The Mariners thought it was Christmas come early the way we played. We just weren't there. We weren't up to it physically. We weren't up to it mentally and our execution was poor. We didn't create anything either so people can stop saying we miss JC (striker Juan Carlos Romero) because when you're not creating chances it doesn't matter who's playing up top.
"It was very disappointing because we could have consolidated second spot but we didn't roll our sleeves up. I don't know where our minds were; certainly not at Seymour Shaw Park.
"The Mariners played us off the park, they played through us, they played long when they had to. We were that poor defensively that they could have done anything to us. It definitely could've been more than 2-0. We're not in a good space at the moment."
St George were on an incredible seven-match unbeaten streak between rounds 14 and 20, but since losing brilliant striker Juan Carlos Romero after an horrendous collision with Bankstown Berries goalkeeper Chad Taylor, the side from Sydney's southern suburbs have struggled and suffered losses to Western Sydney and North Shore. They remain in second place on the table, but Palapanis is wary of the challenge posed by Mt Druitt this weekend.
"Mt Druitt are on a high, they won again (last week) so the boys will need have their minds on the job because playing at Popondetta is always a tough assignment. They're a very energetic team and they've got some new players in there, they've got a new lease of life and some wins under their belts. They're going to be very tough. They're climbing up the ladder but if we stop them from playing and get onto our game quickly we should be okay."
Bankstown City vs Northern Tigers, 3:00 PM, Sunday 6 August, Jensen Park
In a clash between the big cats, Northern Tigers journey to Jensen Park on Sunday to face a Lions outfit that has in the past three weeks completely imploded, conceding a whopping 18 goals. Disillusioned and with confidence at an all-time low in the Lions' den, the Tigers have a golden opportunity to go for the jugular and improve on their recent record of two wins from eight games.
The Tigers suffered a 3-1 defeat to Mt Druitt last weekend but coach Mark McCormick was pleased with his side's effort and saw plenty of positives in the performance.
"I think we played some of our best football last night, but we just got caught out on the counter-attack," McCormick told Football NSW. "Mt Druitt set up to hit us on the counter and they did it really well. We changed the shape of our team a little bit so I take responsibility for that, but I feel that even though we got hit on the counter, we controlled the game."
When asked what positives came out of the loss, McCormick replied: "We played a different shape that we hadn't practised a lot and it worked really good at times. We got a first start for 17-year-old goalkeeper Elliot Carwardine, who replaced Tonu Liiband, who broke his leg last week. We had four teenagers start and another two 20-year-olds so giving those guys a chance to play first grade was a big positive. Liam McConochie also played his first game for 12 weeks so he came off the bench and that was a huge positive giving him some minutes in first grade.
"The players work hard but 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."
Currently sitting in third place on the table, the Tigers are certainly in contention for the top six but while they're giving players opportunties and adding depth to their squad, the league is so close at the moment that they need to generate some momentum with just four weeks remaining of the regular season. The wounded Lions offer McCormick's side the golden opportunity to make a statement and to gain the much-needed three points.
Marconi Stallions vs Blacktown Spartans, 3:00 PM, Sunday 6 August, Marconi Stadium
League leaders Marconi Stallions have the opportunity to put the minor premiership to bed when they host Blacktown Spartans at Marconi Stadium this Sunday.
Peter Tsekenis's sky blue machine just keeps on humming a winning tune and last week's 3-0 victory over Mounties saw his side take another step towards their ultimate goal of gaining promotion to the top echelon of NSW football.
Marconi's win extended their lead at the top of the table to 15 points after second-placed St George lost at home to North Shore Mariners, and Tsekenis will be demanding his players are clearly focused on the job this weekend.
"Winning's a habit so we need to keep rolling," Tsekenis told Football NSW. "We could have scored a couple more goals against Mounties but it wasn't a whitewash by any means. It was a good arm wrestle and it was the extra bit of quality in our squad that was the difference.
"When we have to dig deep and compete, we do. And when we need to turn on that bit of quality we're able to punish teams. We're scoring a lot of goals and keeping it tight at the back - we only conceded a penalty last week that broke our run of clean sheets - and for me, our biggest battle is probably complacency. We have to make sure we don't become complacent because teams are going to come out and try to beat us and we have to match them. It's very simple. It's good to see the boys are raising the bar every time they go out there. That's the challenge I put to them every week."
When asked what he expected of the Spartans, Tsekenis replied: "I haven't seen much of the Spartans but again as long as we're hungry and we compete and make sure our intensity's good, then I expect our quality will be enough to win the game. That's what I'm looking for.
"I know Blacktown Spartans are going to throw everything at us and we have to be ready and make sure we stay composed and make sure we work at a good intensity."
Luis Contigiani's young Spartans outfit has been through the wars this season. Experiencing the best of both worlds the Spartans led the competition early in the season only to be hit with a spate of suspensions and injuries and then the killer blow of a six point deduction for playing a suspended player, which saw them plummet to second last on the table.
Currently sitting in 12th place on the ladder, the Spartans are a mere three points out of the six and while they're not expected to upset the Stallions, they certainly won't roll over for anyone, not even the premiership favourites. The Spartans are fit, they're strong and they're excellent on the counterattack. They also fight to the bitter end, a true testimony to the remarkable job Contigiani has done with limited resources.
Whether those attributes will be enough to trouble a white-hot Stallions side with so much to play for, is a question that will be answered at Marconi Stadium this Sunday.
North Shore Mariners vs Central Coast Mariners, 3:00 PM, Northbridge Oval
In the battle of the Mariners, North Shore host Central Coast at Northbridge Oval on Sunday in what will be a keen contest between contrasting styles. Known for playing a physical, direct style of football, North Shore are currently enjoying an unbeaten three-match run, their most recent result a solid 2-0 win over high-flying St George.
Marquin Smith scored both goals for the visitors who played simple football to claim the spoils.
"I thought we knew what problems they were going to cause us, the dangerous areas and we had a game plan," Mariners coach Joe Haywood told Football NSW. "We delivered that game plan to a tee really, we got a breakaway goal and really had control of the game and eventually got another goal."
When asked what impressed him the most about his side's performance, Haywood replied: "The ability to change shape within the game - we moved two different formations within periods of the game that we needed to - the ability to adapt when we needed to and the mentality of 'it's not about me but my ability to do my job for the team' were also positives. We had a few boys playing out of position, a few boys not starting, but everyone who played did a job and did really well."
Haywood praised Marquin Smith for his goal-scoring instinct; Freddy Ankumah-Seh for his pace, power and strength; and his side's overall ability to play a compact formation.
When asked what he expected of Central Coast, Haywood replied: "I think they're going to be a quick, robust side that have always been able to play well. They started the season not getting the results they wanted but they turned that around and probably the last time we played them it was the turning point of their season. I think they've now got a mentality in their group where they know how to win; they've got a system that suits them; they've got personnel that suits them and obviously they've got young, talented footballers, which is great. It's going to be a good test and a good game all round."
Indeed, 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, and the steady defence led by talented keeper Adam Pearce, they've 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 but North Shore pose a formidable challenge, with their physical in-your-face style and aggression certain to create problems for the young academy side. The clash of the Mariners is sure to be an intriguing one.
Western Sydney Wanderers vs Macarthur Rams, 3:00 PM, Sunday 6 August
Macarthur Rams this Sunday visit Sydney United Sports Centre to face a Western Sydney Wanderers side still getting used to life without forner coach Trevor Morgan, who departed the club on the eve of the team's clash against St George two weeks ago. Morgan's departure shocked many within NPL 2 circles, who regard the former Westfield Sports High School mentor not just as a successful coach, but as one of the game's gentlemen.
Morgan's brief as coach at the Wanderers was to groom players good enough to play professional football and in his two seasons as an NPL 2 coach, he achieved that, developing the likes of Lachlan Scott, Jonathan Aspropotamitis, Jaushua Sotirio, Liam Youlley, Mario Shabow, the Baccus brothers Kearyn and Keanu, and Abraham Majok, to name a few. His sides always played creative, possession-based football where swiftness of foot and mind were of equal importance; while he was never afraid to introduce 15 and 16-year-olds into senior football, giving them the opportunity to shine against mature opposition often double their age.
Morgan's loss could be the trigger for the young Wanderers to dig deep for the rest of the season. After all, by their own lofty standards, they've endured an ordinary year and the fact they're still in with a shot at qualifying for the six is a welcome consolation.
While the Wanderers' Round 22 clash against Central Coast Mariners was postponed, Macarthur arrive at Ednesor Park fresh from a 3-1 loss to Bankstown Berries and they'll be hoping to bounce back against the Red and Black.
Rams' assistant coach Ade Bakare said the game against the Berries was quite close until the visitors scored their second goal.
"I thought first half we played really well and it was quite close, pretty even," Bakare told Football NSW. "And I think the second half they just got away from us (in the) last half hour, especially when the second goal went in. It was really even until then.
"We had a lot of the play but didn't create enough chances. (In the) final third we weren't playing enough through balls. They had a fair amount of chances too. As I say it was a very even game up until halftime but (in the) last half hour they got away with it once they got the second goal in."
Bakare added that while he didn't want to make excuses, the physical toll of playing a midweek friendly against Sydney FC may have led to some tiredness in the legs and had an impact on his side's performance.
"Maybe just a touch of class in those moments when they needed to create a spark came through for them and just not our day today, unfortunately."
Macarthur know they'll be in for a game as the swashbuckling Wanderers will come at them with such skill and velocity that they'll be difficult to contain. But the Rams may have a few surprises of their own and have shown that they can foot it with the best. They may be languishing in 13th place on the table, but the Rams shouldn't be underestimated.
Mounties Wanderers vs Bankstown Berries, 3:00 PM, Sunday 6 August, Valentine Sports Park
Bankstown Berries will be looking to continue their golden run when they visit Valentine Sports Park to face a Mounties Wanderers side desperate to make an impression as the regular season winds down to its conclusion.
With just four matches remaining before the semi-finals, the Berries sit in fourth spot on the ladder, four points ahead of eighth-placed Mounties.
The Berries last week showed they're the real deal with a clinical 3-1 victory over Macarthur Rams at Lynwood Park. The victory was clinical and came just three night's after the side had pulled off a huge FFA Cup win over South Australian outfit MetroStars.
Bankstown now have a date in the final 16 of the prestigious national cup competition; and with a seven-game unbeaten streak, are firming as contenders for the NPL 2 semi-finals.
The Berries have their fair share of critics who claim they don't play football the way it should be played. They're regularly criticised for playing ugly and direct. Yet, they've obviously found a formula that works and they've almost honed it to perfection. They play with a zest and spirit that is infectious. They're solid in defence and they not only create opportunities, they also convert them into goals. They're also well led by new player coach Perry Moustakas, whose influence on what is essentially a young, inexperienced side, has been inspiring.
Moustakas was delighted with his side's performance at Macarthur.
"That was a massive win for us, we've had a really busy week," Moustakas told Football NSW. "(There are some) tired legs out there, I'd say that's been our most professional performance this year. We just really got stuck in, concentrated and did a job tonight. That's what it's all about, we did a good job."
When asked what has been the secret to the Berries' success so far this season, Moustakas replied: "Its come down to the atmosphere in the changing room. We do have a small squad but after a few bad performances this year we really sat down as a team and were all open, we spoke about the situation and what the problems were and we set ourselves a few targets. The good thing is it set the standard, the bar and the boys just rock up week-in, week-out and I'm very happy with that."
Moustakas continued: "The highlight tonight was definitely the professionalism of the boys. Backing up after the (midweek) FFA Cup game (against MetroStars), being on a high, you never what could happen. We could come here and just switch off. Straight after the game with MetroStars I just said to the boys,'great effort but we haven't done anything yet and we've got to back it up on Saturday (against Macarthur)' and I think we definitely did that tonight."
Mounties meanwhile, put up a decent fight against Marconi last weekend but ultimately succumbed 3-0 to the most talented side in the competition, whose quality and ability to punish teams sees them uncatchable on the premiership ladder.
Lee Sterrey's side enjoyed a purple patch between rounds 18 and 20, where they won three-on-the-trot, including an upset 3-2 victory over the high-flying Central Coast Mariners. But since then, they've lost some momentum just as the pressure for places in the finals hots up and the season becomes deadly serious.
One thing about Mounties is when they're on song they can be a tough side to beat.
And according to Sterrey, the quality of the squad is exceptional.
"The boys have been up all season and the character's been first class," Sterrey recently told Football NSW. "Yes, some results haven't gone our way earlier this season," but when the side digs in and works hard for one another and chances are taken, Mounties can be a tough nut to crack.
Mounties may have more quality in their lineup, including the brilliant Neftali Gonzalez, but the Berries' unity and desire to fight for each other has been the hallmark of their season so far. That won't change this weekend.
-By Derek Royal, Football NSW Reporter