Places in the PlayStation4 National Premier Leagues' 2 NSW Men's Grand Final go on the line when premier's Marconi Stallions face North Shore Mariners and second-placed St George clash with Mt Druitt Town Rangers in two fascinating matchups this Saturday.
Marconi and Saints took advantage of the free weekend to freshen up after a long season had left both sides with a few bumps and bruises; while the Mariners and Mt Druitt kept their Grand Final dreams alive with respective wins in last week's elimination semis.
With so much to play for, both matches will provide plenty of value for money.
Match of the Round
St George v Mt Druitt Town Rangers, 7.30pm, Saturday 9 September, Lambert Park
Mt Druitt Town Rangers will be seeking to overcome St George for the third time in as many matches when the two sides clash at Lambert Park on Saturday night.
In their most recent matchup, Rangers clinched a 2-0 victory over Saints in Round 23, with Daniel Rezo scoring both goals; while Saints' Ali Nasreddine and Daniel Loe were red carded, making the always-difficult journey to Popondetta Park a catastrophic one.
But despite their 100 per cent record over Saints, Rangers' coach Aidan Desmond has a lot of respect for the team from Sydney's southern suburbs.
"Finals football is a different ball game to the regular season so I'm not reading too much into our previous games against St George," Desmond told Football NSW. "They're a physical side who take the game to you and they've got some fantastic players with JC (Juan Carlos Romero) and Bruno Pivato, and a really dynamic, high-working midfield. They don't make life easy for you. We'll get the boys back to training, get them fit and healthy and we'll prepare as best we can. We're not there to make up the numbers."
Mt Druitt kept their Championship hopes alive with a nail-biting elimination final win over Northern Tigers via penalty shootout last Saturday night. The teams were locked at one-all at fulltime, after Alex Vlismas opened the scoring for Mt Druitt and Lachlan Hughes fired home a late equaliser for the Tigers. But it was goalkeeper Carlos Saliadarre who was the Rangers' hero, saving two spot kicks as his side nailed a 4-3 victory during an intriguing penalty shootout.
Saliadarre will be a key man for Rangers this Saturday. His skill between the sticks and vast experience gives the side plenty of confidence and, as expected, Desmond was delighted with his performance during last week's shootout.
"How good was Carlos in the penalty shootout?" Desmond beamed in a post-match interview. "When it went to penalties the belief amongst the group was incredible with Carlos in there. He certainly stood up tonight. Cometh the man, cometh the hour."
But despite Saliadarre's heroics and despite his side's rich vein of form - they've lost just once in their last eight games - Desmond knows St George will be a formidable opponent.
"They'll fresh and keen with a point to prove," Desmond said. "We've beaten them twice this season so they'll use that as motivation. We saw what Northern Tigers did in our elimination semi - we'd beaten them twice but they played really well and the match went to a penalty shootout. As I've said, finals football is totally different and (St George coach) Terry (Palapanis) will have his side prepared to the minute. St George won't sit back, they'll take the game to us. But we'll be ready."
Meanwhile, Palapanis used the free weekend to his advantage, giving his side four days off to freshen up from a few bumps and bruises.
"We had a lot of niggling injuries so I just trained them twice last week and gave them a four-day rest over the weekend," Palapanis told Football NSW. "Everyone's back and apart from one suspension it's the first time this year I've got everyone available. I was going to organise a game over the break but there were so many niggling injuries that I decided not to. We've been training on artificial pitches all year and that's taken its toll. But the boys look energetic and they're looking forward to the game on Saturday."
Going into the final round of the regular season, Saints needed to beat Premiers Marconi Stallions to hold onto second place on the table. Their desperation and a touch of luck, proved to be enough to win the spoils.
"We were very lucky we won that match against Marconi and it was good for our confidence," Palapanis said. "But in terms of Mt Druitt, we've lost to them twice this year. We were unlucky in both matches but I think we were a little bit naive. We'll be a bit more clever the way we approach the game this Saturday. Without giving too much away we'll be better prepared. The players were gutted when we lost the second time. We finished with nine men but we're ready to make amends.
"Mt Druitt will be up for it this weekend. They'll be compact, they'll sit back and hit us on the counter. That's their tactic and it’s been like that all year. They play quite direct so we'll be prepared for that. I don't think their tactics will change at all. They've got some good players so we need to be focused and at our best."
Palapanis added that while Spanish goal-scoring sensation Juan Carlos Romero and creative midfielder Bruno Pivato were the aces in the St George pack, his side would provide a few surprises this weekend.
"We know there'll be a bit of attention on Bruno and JC but we'll surprise them. We have a few other aces up our sleeves."
The best news for Saints is probably the fact that they're virtually injury free and for the first time this season.
"We've got one player under an injury cloud and one suspension," Palapanis said. "We're the best we've been for a long time and we've got a good selection headache.
"We'll give Mt Druitt a headache or two. We'll give it everything we've got and if we're not good enough, we're not good enough, simple as that."
St George: Spanish goalscoring sensation Juan Carlos Romero and creative midfielder Bruno Pivato are the match-winners for St George and their influence is likely to determine the outcome of the match. Both can score goals and their combination has been superb since Pivato's return to the club midseason.
Mt Druitt: Matthew Clowes had a fantastic captain's knock in last week's elimination semi-final win over Northern Tigers, his reliability and composure at the back a key to his side's victory. He'll need to be just as effective and ensure that his backline is focused and well-organised to cope with St George's potent attacking unit. But goalkeeper Carlos Saliadarre is the team's trump card. His confidence, experience and skill gives his teammates an enormous lift. Others who have potential to influence the game include Daniel Rezo, Luke Grima and Lachlan Roberts.
Marconi v North Shore Mariners, 7.30pm, Saturday 9 September, Sydney United Sports Centre
Premiers and club champions Marconi Stallions will be gunning for a place in the grand final and a possible trifecta when they face North Shore Mariners at Sydney United Sports Centre this Saturday.
After running away with the premiership and gaining promotion back to NPL 1, only one honour is missing from the Stallions' honours board in 2017: victory in the grand final.
"Unfortunately no-one remembers the minor premiers, but everyone remembers the grand final winners," Stallions' coach Peter Tsekenis told Football NSW. "We're pretty hungry and we'll make sure we're focused and mentally prepared for North Shore Mariners this Saturday."
Marconi suffered a shock defeat to St George in their final match of the regular season, a loss that ended their impressive winning streak at 11 matches. Tsekenis believs that setback was a blessing in disguise.
"I see the loss to St George in the final round as a positive because it took the monkey off our backs. It took away the pressure of winning so many matches in a row and wondering when we would lose.
"Now we can't be complacent because the loss showed we're not invincible. I think the boys realised that if you're not desperate, if you're not doing what you should be doing at all times, you'll struggle against a desperate team. And St George were desperate that day. They had to win to hold onto second place.
"It wasn't that we performed poorly, it was just that the team we were up against were desperate where we really had nothing to play for, other than keeping an unbeaten record. Finals football is a different ball game. Even if we'd beaten St George it wouldn't have meant anything going into the finals."
Tsekenis added that since gaining promotion to PS4 NPL top tier, his side relaxed a little bit but he also reinforced the fact that with a place in the grand final on the line, their focus would sharpen and their attitude would change completely.
"To be honest, we relaxed a little bit once we achieved promotion to NPL 1 and some people have even suggested that because we've achieved our goal, winning the grand final isn't important but as coaches and footballers and elite athletes as a lot of these blokes are, it's all about trophies, it's all about winning. We're very hungry to win a grand final, but we need to beat the Mariners to get there.
"The Mariners are very solid, well-drilled, and with their high press and direct play, are very similar to our approach, getting into the box without mucking around too much. So both teams are pretty similar in that respect. I wasn't here when we lost to them 4-0 but we beat them 2-0 under my watch and that game was an arm wrestle. I'm expecting a tough battle."
The Stallions will train at the match venue, Sydney United Sports Centre, on Thursday and Friday and while they will forfeit their home ground advantage, Tsekenis isn't too concerned.
"It's a pity we have to play on synthetic and forfeit our home ground advantage, but it is what it is," he said.
Tsekenis said that his side had no injury concerns and barring any training incidents this week, would be "right to go".
Meanwhile, the Mariners will go into the match against Marconi in white-hot form and brimming with confidence. The boys from Northbridge extended their unbeaten streak to seven matches in last week's 3-1 victory over Central Coast Mariners in the elimination semi, hot on the heels of a 6-1 slaughter of Western Sydney Wanderers.
Coach Joe Haywood was impressed with his side's dominant performance against Central Coast.
"From start to finish the boys did well," Haywood told Football NSW. "In the first 15 minutes we had a plan to let them have the ball. And then we surprised them and came out and pressed. The game plan worked today and the boys delivered it effectively.
"The biggest thing for me was our one-on-one defending which was what got us the control of the game. We won those individual battles and stopped their key players from playing. Our defending was very good."
When asked what impressed him the most about his side's performance, Haywood replied: "Our ability to control the game in stages, not necessarily with possession, but with our structure. We were always a threat - not just from set pieces - and we had a hatful of chances and on another day we would have scored more goals. We also kept them to minimal chances, and we controlled the game with our structure which was great."
When asked what he expected of Marconi, Haywood replied: "They're a strong, powerful, experienced football team. They're a club with a lot of history and heritage. They've got boys in their team who know how to win a game of football.
"We beat them in the first round and they beat us in the second round but as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing to be worried about. We've got our strengths and we know what their strengths are so we'll come up with a plan this week to try and nullify their strengths and find some weaknesses. The boys are really looking forward to the game and to be honest, they're happy to be playing Marconi."
Marconi Stallions: Golden boot winner Sean Rooney and his regular partners in crime Mirjan Pavlovic and Marko Jesic are a class act and are the most prolific front three in the competition. Add former Socceroo defender Michael Beauchamp to the equation and their collective influence will determine the outcome of the game.
North Shore Mariners: The Mariners are a solid team who thrive on hard work and collective effort, but in Mitch and Marquin Smith, they boast a skillful pair who can create opportunities and score goals. Both will need to be watched.
Source FNSW Website -By Derek Royal, Football NSW Reporter