Round 24 of the PlayStation 4 National Premier Leagues' 2 NSW Men's competition kicks off this weekend and with just three rounds remaining before the end of the regular season, spots in the top six remain up for grabs.
Marconi Stallions last week claimed the first grade Premiership with a 2-0 victory over Blacktown Spartans and Peter Tsekenis's side will this Saturday travel to Seven Hills to face a Hills United side that desperately needs points to keep their slim finals hopes alive.
In the Match of the Round, Bankstown Berries host Western Sydney Wanderers on Saturday night; while in other games, Central Coast Mariners and Mt Druitt Town Rangers clash in Gosford; Northern Tigers host arch rivals Spirit FC; North Shore Mariners travel to Macarthur; St George tackle Bankstown City and in the only Sunday fixture of the round, Blacktown Spartans host Mounties Wanderers.
Match of the Round
Bankstown Berries vs Western Sydney Wanderers, 7:00 PM, Saturday 12 August, The Crest Athletic Centre
In a mouth-watering PS4 NPL 2 NSW Men's Match of the Round clash, Bankstown Berries take on Western Sydney Wanderers at The Crest on Saturday night.
The Wanderers currently sit in fifth spot on the ladder while Berries are one place below them in sixth, so victory is crucial to both sides.
The Berries last week suffered a gut-wrenching 3-2 loss to Mounties Wanderers, while Western Sydney overcame Macarthur Rams 4-2.
Despite racing out to an early 2-0 lead and ultimately losing the spoils, Berries' player coach Perry Moustakas was realistic about his side's defeat, one that came after an impressive streak of seven-matches without defeat.
"Look, today was coming," Moustakas told Football NSW. "We took a 2-0 lead pretty quick and created plenty of chances but it just got to a point where the players ran out of gas. They've played a lot of football in recent months and after about 35th or 40th minute we were just second-best to everything. We were tired and started making some uncharacteristic mistakes, but full credit to Mounties, they capitalised on our mistakes. But we definitely had a lot of chances. It's a tough one to take but we knew the loss had to come eventually."
Moustakas revealed that he only had a 12-man squad available due to injuries and with a small squad of players doing the damage most of the season anyway, fatigue was always going to be a factor. But he was also upbeat by the fact that despite being flat, his side had enough chances to win the game.
"I'm disappointed because we maybe created enough chances to take the game," Moustakas said. "We gifted them three goals and had a few chances we should have buried. Even though we were physically not up to it, we still could have taken home the three points. I'm taking that as a positive."
Moustakas said his side will be ready for the challenge posed by the Wanderers this weekend, a team the Berries beat 1-0 in Round 11.
"I'm pretty sure the boys are going to be ready for the Wanderers," Moustakas said. "We've got a week to prepare for the game and with so much on the line, the boys will be up for it."
Meanwhile, Western Sydney Wanderers beat Macarthur Rams 4-2 at Sydney United Sports Centre on Sunday to remain in the hunt for a place in the top six.
Kyle Cimenti scored a double for the Wanderers, and Oliver Puflett and Jordan Hall grabbed one goal each.
In a tale of two halves, the Wanderers started slowly but bounced back in the second half to control the game.
With Mathieu Cordier, Oliver Puflett, Moudi Najjar and Tate Russell away in Perth for seven days with the Young Socceroos and not returning to Sydney until game day, it's no surprise Western Sydney were a little disjointed in the first half.
When asked what impressed him the most about his side's performance, Wanderers assistant coach Arthur Diles replied: "The way we finished the game. Considering it was such a big week - having those players away with the Young Socceroos - and then having an eight-day turnaround we loaded the boys up in terms of their training and it was good to see they were able to finish the game very well physically. The good thing also was we didn't concede a goal from open play - one was from a free kick and one was from a corner. We scrambled quite well and defended well."
Central Coast Mariners vs Mt Druitt Town Rangers, 4:00 PM, Saturday 12 August, Pluim Park
Central Coast Mariners host Mt Druitt Town Rangers at Pluim Park on Saturday and while Ben Cahn's young side will be desperate to take home the spoils to remain in contention for a top six spot, their opponents will be hoping to extend their unbeaten streak to five matches.
Rangers are finding form at the right time of the season and last week's 2-0 win over second-placed St George at Popondetta Park showed once again that at their best, they're a force to be reckoned with.
Daniel Rezo scored both goals to give his side an invaluable three points and outright fourth place on the competition table.
"We caught them on the counter-attack with our first goal," Mt Druitt coach Aidan Desmond said of the seventh minute opener. "We suspected they'd come out and be quite aggressive in possession and really come at us. And we caught them on the counter down the right-hand side. The ball was cut back to Daniel Rezo who finished it fairly comfortably."
Rangers led 1-0 at halftime but according to Desmond his side were dreadful in the last 25 minutes of the first half.
"We were own own worst enemies," Desmond said. "We gave the ball away, we didn't retain possession and we were quite scrappy."
Desmond changed a few things at halftime and within seven minutes Rezo chipped home his side's second goal to seal victory.
"St George play an aggressive defensive game and they had two players sent off," Desmond said. "Once they were down to nine men we just kept the ball. I wasn't bothered whether we scored or not, we just wanted to stop them from scoring and get through the game."
Desmond added that for the fourth time in as many weeks, his side rolled up their sleeves and worked hard for one another, while goalkeeper Carlos Saliadarre made two or three critical saves in the first half to keep his side alive.
"If we'd conceded a couple of goals in that first half the result would've been a different story, but Carlos kept us alive," Desmond said. "Nobody stood out overall, we were quite good right across the park. Even the players who came of the bench just did what they had to do."
Central Coast meanwhile, shared the spoils 2-all with North Shore Mariners at Northbridge Oval on Sunday. The young Coasters have only won once in their last six outings, an ominous sign with just three rounds to go before the end of the regular season.
With the semi-finals just four weeks away, both sides would have craved three points but it wasn't to be, with the draw leaving them sitting in equal seventh, just a point outside the six.
The remaining three rounds of the regular season will be critical as teams continue to jostle for places, so every point gained is invaluable as the race for championship honours continues.
Northern Tigers vs Spirit FC, 6:30 PM, Saturday 12 August, North Turramurra Recreation Area
Northern Tigers face Spirit FC at North Turramurra on Saturday and as always, the local derby is sure to be a torrid affair.
The Tigers sit comfortably in third place on the ladder, just one point behind St George and two points ahead of Mt Druitt Town Rangers. Spirit on the other hand, lie in equal eighth, three points out of the six, so both sides have plenty to play for.
Spirit realise that this is probably their last throw of the dice; a win will see them keep their hopes alive for a berth in the semis, while a loss will likely end their season.
The Tigers last week edged out a brave Bankstown City Lions 1-0 at Jensen Park, with Aram Tayebi gabbing the winner in the 24th minute.
The Tigers were expected to romp home against a Lions outfit that had conceded a whopping 18 goals in their last three games. But against the odds, Bankstown put up a brave fight and pushed the Tigers for the full 90 minutes.
"It was an important three points for us," Tigers coach Mark McCormick told Football NSW. "We're still in the hunt for the playoffs so it was real important we got back on track after last week's 3-1 loss to Mt Druitt. We went to Jensen which is never an easy place to go to because of the (poor) pitch. But we put on a professional performance and came away with the three points."
When asked what impressed him the most about his side's performance, McCormick replied: "It was a real professional performance; it's a real difficult pitch and Bankstown are fighting for their lives. They're a very physical team and our boys responded to that.
"We had some chances; they've cleared one off the line; we've missed a penalty at zero-zero; and even though we were playing on a difficult pitch, we were still creating chances. But also, a clean sheet is extremely important at this stage of the season and in a league that's so tight three points are invaluable.
"Everyone was fantastic, even the guys coming off the bench. The win was really important. We had a 17-year-old kid in goal and a couple of other teenagers out there. Sometimes you need to win ugly, it's not always beautiful. Sometimes it's just a a case of taking the three points and getting out of there."
When asked what he expected of the clash against Spirit this weekend, McCormick replied: "Tigers and Spirit is always a tough game. Spirit have got themselves up the table and they'll be trying to solidify a position in the playoffs so I'm expecting a physical game. David Perkovic is a good tactical coach so I'm sure they're got be motivated for the game and up for it."
Meanwhile, Spirit FC and Hills United shared the spoils one-all in a tight PS4 NPL 2 NSW Men's Match of the Round at Valentine Sports Park on Saturday night.
In what was a crucial clash between two sides tied in seventh equal on the ladder, the combatants entered the match just two points outside the six, but fell short of taking the opportunity to inch a step closer to a possible place in the semis. Indeed, with just three rounds remaining of the regular season, finals football may prove to be a step too far for both sides.
To be fair, there were some robust moments in the match that were more suitable on a rugby league field than a football one, but once the two sides settled down and played, the fare on offer wasn't too bad.
Spirit created far more goal-scoring opportunities than their opponents, but simply couldn't finish.
Striker Chris Godoy Bascur caused all sorts of bother in the Hills defence, and proved to be a constant menace, hounding and harassing, and forcing the visitors into error. The diminutive Number 9 even had the cheek to steal possession on a number of occasions but unfortunately, couldn't strike gold.
Spirit attacked through the midfield and on occasion, lobbed the ball over the top when the opportunity arose. Both tactics were effective at creating opportunities and while the home side found chinks in United's armour, Hills played some excellent attacking football of their own, only to be denied time and again by the impressive Spirit backline of Jacob Harris, Daniel Cunningham, Grant Cornwell and Michael Streeter.
Harris in particular was outstanding, his vision, defensive nous and composure under pressure excellent. But just as vital to the Spirit cause were his backline partners, who, apart from an errant corner, proved to be an impenetrable wall for the visitors.
In the end, the game ended in a one-all draw when Spirit probably should have won by at least two clear goals.
Spirit coach David Perkovic was happy with his side's defensive performance but rued their inability to convert opportunities in front of goal.
"Today we did fairly well defensively," Perkovic told Football NSW. "Disappointingly we conceded off a set piece but we just needed to take our chances. We had a few one-on-ones we didn't capitalise on and (that probably) cost us two points today.
"We didn't lose so that's a positive and defensively I think we were fairly solid. We need to try to address the other end of the park and converting opportunities, that's what we'll work on this week to try and rectify next weekend.
"I think we played a balanced game of football where we asked different questions of our opposition. We played through midfield and at times when we saw an opportunity to get in behind them we took those options as well. I think we had a good balance of football that was effective and that's why we created more clinical goal-scoring opportunities than our opposition."
Macarthur Rams vs North Shore Mariners, 7:00 PM, Saturday 12 August, Lynwood Park
Macarthur Rams host North Shore Mariners at Lynwood Park on Saturday night and while finals football is unlikely, the Rams won't be easy pickings for an opponent that sits in seventh equal on the table.
Macarthur lost 4-2 to Western Sydney Wanderers last Sunday, with Scott Goodwin and Lochie Reus scoring one goal apiece; while North Shore shared the spoils with Central Coast Mariners 2-all.
Despite the loss, Rams coach Eddie Briscoe was pleased with his side's performance against the Wanderers.
"We went out there and were very positive," Briscoe told Football NSW. "We went at them and didn't sit back. It was a close first half and although we went 1-0 down, we had chances. They cleared off the line, their keeper made a couple of good saves and we equalised from a corner. I thought we were actually the better team in the first half but they got us twice on the break in the second half and while we bridged the gap to 3-2 at one stage, they caught us on the counter attack again to score their fourth. That was it."
Meanwhile, Joe Haywood's North Shore will be desperate to win the spoils this weekend. With just three rounds to go before the end of the regular season, the Northbridge outfit need to win to keep their finals hopes alive.
When asked what he expected of the Mariners this weekend, Briscoe replied: "They're a very tough team to play against. They've got a lot of pace and power and they're very organised. It'll be a very tough game for us, definitely."
Indeed, North Shore will provide stiff opposition for Briscoe's Rams. Their in-your-face style and ability to create opportunities is likely to be even more robust this weekend. The Rams will need to be at their very best to absorb the pressure for the full 90 minutes. Any frailties will be mercilessly exposed by the Mariners, who have the quality to take advantage of any opportunities that come their way.
St George vs Bankstown City, 7:00 PM, Saturday 12 August, Seymour Shaw Park
With the semi-finals looming large on the horizon, St George will be hoping to get their campaign back on track when they host Bankstown City Lions at Seymour Shaw Park on Saturday.
Saints remain in second-place on the table, but haven't tasted victory in their last three games; while Bankstown last week fought courageously before losing 1-0 to Northern Tigers.
It comes as no surprise that ever since ace striker Juan Carlos Romero suffered a serious injury against Bankstown Berries, Saints have scored just once in their last three games.
"We need to score goals," St George coach Terry Palapanis told Football NSW. "We just can't score, the ball just won't go into the back of the net. We had enough opportunities to win three games against Mt Druitt (last week)."
"We had the majority of the ball in the first half but they got us on the counter the first time they attacked us, and scored the first goal of the game," Palapanis said. "We hit the post two or three times in that first half but just couldn't score. We had more of the play, more shots on goal and we were still down at halftime."
Palapanis said that his side made a "really poor error in judgement" to concede the second goal. And from there, things just went from bad to worse as Ali Nasreddine and Daniel Loe received their marching orders and Rangers held on for the win.
"We had two players red carded; the first for a second yellow and the second for saying something to another player," Palapanis said. "The referee thought the comment was directed at him and he sent him off straight away. That was it, we were down to nine men ... we were down 2-0 ... thanks for coming."
St George were on an incredible seven-match unbeaten streak between rounds 14 and 20, but since losing Spanish import Romero after an horrendous collision with Bankstown Berries goalkeeper Chad Taylor, the side from Sydney's southern suburbs have struggled. But according to Palapanis, Romero could make a surprise return as early as this weekend.
"JC (Romero) has been training with the boys and might even be available for this week's game against Bankstown," Palapanis said. "If not then I'd say he'll be ready to play the following week just before the start of the semis."
Romero is the missing piece in the St George masterplan and with an astounding 18 goals to his name this season, iSaints desperately need their Spanish sharpshooter back in action asap. Romero's return will certainly give his coach, not to mention his teammates and local fans, something to smile about.
Hills United vs Marconi Stallions, 7:30 PM, Saturday 12 August, Lilys Football Centre
Hills United will host newly-crowned 2017 Premiers Marconi Stallions at Lilys Football Centre on Saturday night.
Hills drew one-all with Spirit FC last weekend; while Marconi clinched the Premiership with a solid 2-0 victory over Blacktown Spartans at Bossley Park.
Hills and Spirit entered their clash at Valentine just two points outside the six, but fell short of taking the opportunity to inch a step closer to a possible place in the semis. Indeed, with just three rounds remaining of the regular season, finals football may prove to be a step too far for.
Hills need to lift their game considerably if they're to challenge a Stallions outfit that has improved dramatically since the two sides clashed in Round 11.
On that occasion Marconi held a slender 2-1 lead early in the second half before racing away to a 5-1 victory, a scoreline that flattered the winners.
"I thought it was an interesting game, a game of two halves," Hills coach Dan Sheppard told Football NSW. "The scoreline flatters the home team a little bit and isn't a true reflection of the game.
"The money they've spent on the players they've got was probably the biggest difference between the two sides. In the crucial moments some of those players have just got that little bit better experience and better quality.
"It was a case of death by a thousand balls in behind. It's tough to play football and impress when you're defending a ball that's always behind you."
Hills last week struggled to contain Spirit, who created several opportunities but couldn't finish. Indeed, the home side could well have won by at least two goals, such was their dominance.
Marconi won't be so generous and while they'll travel to Seven Hills with the pressure of winning the Premiership behind them, coach Peter Tsekenis will rely on his team's professionalism to be focused on the job at hand and not be distracted by their Premiership success and the upcoming finals series.
The Stallions did enough to beat a courageous Blacktown Spartans 2-0 at Marconi Stadium on Sunday, with Sean Rooney and Marko Jesic sealing the win with goals in the 45th and 56th minutes.
Marconi's win extended their lead at the top of the table to an uncatchable 18 points and while his side's performance was far from polished, Tsekenis was pleased to take home the spoils.
"Credit to Spartans, they kept coming at us," Tsekenis told Football NSW. "We created some good opportunities at times but the end finish was very sloppy. Spartans created a couple of chances themselves which could have made life a bit more difficult for us but we were in control most of the game and it was just a matter of finishing things off. If we had our shooting boots on we could've put three or four in but it wasn't to be. But credit to Spartans, they kept competing and in the end we got the result we needed.
"We stayed patient and kept working and plugging away. It became frustrating because we created a lot of chances but were really sloppy in front of goal to the point where it was laughable. But their keeper made some really good saves and kept them in the game for a long period. In the end our patience and focus got us through and we got the result we needed, which at this stage of the season is very important."
Blacktown Spartans vs Mounties Wanderers, 5:00 PM, Sunday 13 August, Blacktown Football Park
Blacktown Spartans host Mounties Wanderers on Sunday and while the home side is unlikely to qualify for the top six, the visitors will be desperate to win in order to keep their finals dreams alive.
The Spartans last week pushed hard against Premiership winners Marconi, before going down 2-0; while Mounties came back from two goals down to beat Bankstown Berries 3-2 in their first outing since the departure of coach Lee Sterrey.
Spartans coach Luis Contigiani said that while he was disappointed to lose, he was happy with his team's performance.
"Marconi are a very good team and any one of their front three (Rooney, Jesic and Mirjan Pavlovic) can score a goal," Contigiani told Football NSW. "It's a quality side but in the first half we were good and actually had some clearcut chances. We kept the ball well and actually competed very, very well.
"But then they scored just before halftime and in the second half they scored a penalty and after that they took control. We didn't keep the ball as well as we did in the first half and in the second half they turned it on and were more dominant."
When asked what he expected of Mounties this weekend, Contigiani replied: "Normally, when a team loses their coach, they rally and win a few games. Mounties proved that by beating the Berries, so I think maybe we're going to play them at the wrong time. But in saying that we're going to give them the best possible game that we can. We're always going to go out to try to win."
Meanwhile, Mounties' courageous comeback from two goals down against the Berries sees them sitting just one point outside the top six and very much in contention for the finals.
Mounties sensationally parted ways with coach Lee Sterrey on the eve of the Berries game, but despite the distraction they somehow managed to come back from a two-goal deficit to steal the spoils.
"The character of the boys was awesome," Mounties' player coach Neftali Gonzalez told Football NSW. "We started a bit sloppy at the back and conceded two goals but to be honest, to come back from 2-0 down showed great character. I'm happy for them."
When asked who stood out for his side, Gonzalez replied: "To be honest all the boys were awesome but Tai (Smith) with two goals played well; and Anthony Smith the fullback also played a really good game, he gave us a lot of width on the right-hand side. They were awesome."
Looking ahead to the clash against the Spartans, Gonzalez said he expected a tough game.
"The Spartans are always tough to beat, they normally sit deep and they're hard to break down," Gonzalez told Football NSW. "Their counter-attack is pretty sharp so it's going to be hard, a good game."
-By Derek Royal, Football NSW Reporter