We’re into the final quarter of the National Premier Leagues 2 NSW Men’s competition, and the big games just keep coming. Some of the teams at the top are playing sides near the bottom of the ladder, but if we’ve learned anything about this league over the years, it’s that anyone can beat anyone else on their day.

Match of the Round: Hills United v GHFA Spirit FC, 5:00pm Saturday 20 July, Lily Homes Stadium

Our featured match is an early evening meeting on Saturday between second placed Hills United and third placed Spirit FC.

Hills are six points ahead of Spirit, so a victory would be a huge step to a top two finish and a bye for the first round of the finals. The emergence of Kento Sakurai has been key, and the curly-haired midfielder has scored two spectacular goals in recent weeks.

Of course, it’s not only about one man, and Hills have been on fire as an attacking unit. 10 goals in the last three games mean they now have the joint best attack in the league (with Western Sydney Wanderers). However, they do have to overcome a very poor record against Saturday’s opponents – Hills United haven’t beaten Spirit FC since August 2013.

Spirit need a win to keep their top two hopes alive, and also because a finals spot is far from guaranteed – one point separates them from seventh placed Mounties. David Perkovic’s men need to turn around a recent run of indifferent form which has seen them go winless in four games, but they’ll have to do it without skipper Grant Cornwell, who is out due to a broken arm.

On the plus side, winger Ahmed Sweedan scored twice on Saturday night to open his account for the season. Sweedan is teammates with a few of the Hills players when he kits up for Dural Warriors in the Futsal Premier League, will he be able to use that familiarity to his advantage?

Bonnyrigg White Eagles v Northern Tigers, 6:30pm Saturday 20 July, Bonnyrigg Sports Club

In form Bonnyrigg White Eagles host Northern Tigers in a crucial clash at Bonnyrigg Sports Club. The two sides couldn’t be split back in Round 8, and only four points separate them on the ladder, so we should expect another close contest.

The White Eagles are soaring up the table thanks to five wins and a draw in the last six weeks. On Sunday, it was another clean sheet for the stingiest defence in the division, and the win saw Wayne O’Sullivan’s team deal a blow to Central Coast’s finals hopes – can they do the same to the Tigers? As usual, Sam Gallaway is expected to be an important player on the left side of Bonnyrigg’s formation in both defence and attack.

For Northern Tigers, this is the start of a stretch of games which could define their season. The next five matches are against clubs currently above them in the table, and a good run could launch them right into the mix of a congested finals race. One loss in 13 matches means Adam Hett’s men are hard to beat, and two late goals on Saturday against Rydalmere show that they always push until the very end. The Tigers have been benefitting in recent times from some new names on the scoresheet: Ollie Wiggin has two goals in the last three weeks, and William Foristal has scored in each of the last two rounds.

Macarthur Rams v Central Coast Mariners, 7:00pm Saturday 20 July, Lynwood Park No. 1

At Lynwood Park, both teams will be looking to bounce back after disappointing results last time out.

Macarthur’s search for a win goes on. They have generally been better at home, so there is some hope as the Rams try to end a winless run against Central Coast stretching back to April 2017. A solid defensive performance won’t hurt, and so Macarthur will be looking to the likes of Chris Sheerin, Lorenzo Fatica and Danny Lazarevski to keep things tight at the back.

With their finals hopes hanging by a thread, the long trip to Lynwood Park might be just what Central Coast need – they’ve won more away games than home games in 2019. The Mariners have been boom or bust in recent weeks, scoring four against Rydalmere and five against Canterbury, but also being kept scoreless by North Shore and Bonnyrigg. Dylan Ruiz-Diaz could be the one to help Nick Montgomery’s team find some consistency in front of goal: he netted a hat trick when these sides met on Easter Sunday.

Canterbury Bankstown FC v North Shore Mariners, 7:00pm Saturday 20 July, The Crest Athletic Centre

The division’s bottom club face off against the league leaders on Saturday night, and the ladder suggests there’ll be a similar result to North Shore’s 3-0 win over Canterbury in Round 8.

However, on the weekend Canterbury grabbed a much needed victory against Western Sydney Wanderers. 10 of their 11 points have been earned at The Crest, so if we’re going to see an upset, this is the venue for it. Zac Elrich keeps scoring (he’s now up to seven goals in eight games for Canterbury), and the flamboyant attacker also set up a goal on Saturday night. Scott Tonkin provides a different kind of threat, and he always causes problems at set pieces due to his his aerial ability.

North Shore Mariners are truly a well-oiled machine. Even when the Smiths (Mitchell and Marquin) don’t score, others step up – last week it was Sean Eve and Chris Lindsay. Their record against Saturday’s opponents is excellent, with six wins and a draw in seven previous clashes against Canterbury. Joe Haywood’s side need to keep this run going not just for the Premiership, but also for the promotion race, as Western Sydney Wanderers are still hot on their heels in the Club Championship.

Rydalmere Lions v Blacktown Spartans, 7:00pm Saturday 20 July, Valentine Sports Park No. 2

If the previous meeting between these two teams is any guide, this one will go right down to the wire. Back in April, Rydalmere scored a 90th minute equaliser, only for the Spartans to race straight down the other end and grab the winner.

Rydalmere are far from safe, and need points to create space between them and the bottom three of the Club Championship. They haven’t beaten the Spartans in three previous attempts (one draw and two losses), however these kinds of records are there to be broken. The Lions definitely have the pace in attack to cause problems for any opponent, but the midfield trio of Mitchell Gibbs, Addison Sayan and Abuzar Awaz is just as important to their chances of success.

The Spartans have well and truly recovered from a midseason slump, six victories in seven weeks taking them back into the top six. Connor Eldridge’s double against Spirit FC took his tally for the year into double figures. Eldridge has been bearing the attacking load for most of the season, so Spartans coach Paul Hubbard must be pleased that Finley Hayhurst is starting to find the net, with two goals in the last two rounds.

St George City FA v Mounties Wanderers, 3:00pm Sunday 21 July, Jubilee Oval

The Sunday afternoon fixture sees St George City FA play at Jubilee Oval for the fourth weekend in a row – Mounties are the opponents this time.

City were beaten convincingly by Mounties back in Round 8, but they have improved greatly since then, so we could very well witness a close game. In defence, Matthew Mayora’s suspension will be a big loss for a side that hasn’t kept a clean sheet in seven matches. Things have looked better at the other end as City have displayed a variety of attacking threats: they have had seven different goalscorers in the last six rounds.

For Mounties, the loss to Hills on Saturday was a double whammy: it ended a good run of form and they slid out of the top six. Like their opponents, Mounties can get goals from seemingly anywhere, and not just from the attackers. A combination of aerial strength and nerveless penalty taking has taken deep-lying midfielder Theo Kofinas to a tally of seven goals for the campaign, and he is now the team’s joint top scorer with Sean Rooney.

Western Sydney Wanderers v St George FC, 7:00pm Sunday 21 July, Lily Homes Stadium

Not only does the round start at Lily Homes Stadium, it also finishes there on Sunday night as Western Sydney Wanderers host St George FC.

The Wanderers are hoping for a better result than in their last NPL 2 match at this venue, a 1-0 loss to Bankstown Berries (as they were known then) in May 2017. They also need a win to stop a recent slide down the table.

Here’s a fact which will surprise nobody: Mohamed Adam scored the winner when these two met in April. The previous meeting with St George FC was part of an eight game scoring streak for Adam, and a goal on Sunday would mean he repeats that milestone. The young striker is one of a number of players named in the provisional Wanderers squad for Saturday’s match against Leeds United, and Arthur Diles must be pleased to see his squad getting noticed.

The Saints should be confident following a vital victory against Macarthur, their first since Round 13. They looked much better in attack, and Juan Carlos Romero found the net with a trademark strike. The Spanish goal-getter has a fantastic record against the youngsters in Red & Black, scoring six goals in four previous appearances. This is in contrast to St George FC’s history against the Wanderers (one win in seven games), however that solitary win in March 2018 came after a Romero hat trick.

By Eric Subijano

Twitter – @eric_subijano

Source FNSW website