With five weeks of the regular season remaining in the 2019 National Premier Leagues NSW Men’s 20s competition, the finals picture is no clearer.
Round 18 sees three matches in which finals contenders are directly facing off, promising plenty of movement among the top five by the end of the weekend.
Sutherland Sharks take on Marconi Stallions in this week’s Match of the Round, while second-placed Sydney FC host third-placed Rockdale City Suns at Lambert Park on Saturday afternoon.
Elsewhere, Manly United and Sydney Olympic will look to take each other out in the race for fifth when they meet at Cromer Park, while APIA Leichhardt travel to Lily Homes Stadium to take on Blacktown City.
Match of the Round: Sutherland Sharks v Marconi Stallions, Saturday 4.30pm at Seymour Shaw
Sutherland Sharks return to Seymour Shaw on Sunday afternoon for a critical match against Marconi Stallions, with each side separated by five points in fourth and seventh places respectively.
The Sharks can thank James Temelkovski for claiming a more secure spot among the top five, with a three-point gap down to sixth after Sutherland’s 3-2 win over Manly last weekend. Temelkovski’s hattrick at Cromer Park has given his side a small margin for error as they turn to the final run-in, with matches against Sydney FC and Rockdale to come.
Marconi, for their part, travel south on the back of a 1-0 defeat of Sydney United in Round 17, a result which has helped keep the Stallions in finals contention for at least another week.
Both sides come into this match in near identical form, having won three of their last five matches, including the last two in a row. Sutherland won 2-0 when they travelled to Marconi Stadium earlier in the season.
Sydney FC v Rockdale City Suns, 5pm at Lambert Park
Sydney FC and Rockdale City Suns meet at Lambert Park on Saturday afternoon for a match that could potentially prove decisive in the race for second.
While Blacktown City have slipped in recent weeks it remains unlikely that either Sydney or Rockdale will catch them, leaving second place up for grabs.
The Sky Blues currently occupy the position, sitting two points in front of third-placed Rockdale following a remarkable 2-1 win over Blacktown last weekend.
Jake Hollman opened the scoring with a first-half penalty before Calem Niuewenhof doubled Sydney FC’s lead shortly after the restart, as Blacktown lost for the first time at home in 2019.
Rockdale, meanwhile, travel to Lambert Park following a 1-0 win away at Sydney Olympic; the only goal of the game coming from Noah Botic. The reverse fixture finished 1-1 when these sides met at Ilinden Sports Centre in April.
Mt Druitt Town Rangers v Sydney United 58, 5pm at Popondetta Park
Mt Druitt are down, but they’re not yet out. The Rangers sit six points off fifth place – and it could yet be more should APIA win their game in hand – but win against Sydney United this week, and a late run begins to look like a possibility.
Mt Druitt beat Wollongong Wolves 2-0 last weekend; their first win in five weeks coming courtesy of goals from Emmanuel Peters and Luke Clifford. Now, they turn their attention to Sydney United, who travel to Popondetta Park seven points adrift at the bottom of the table, and with four losses in their last four games.
United were beaten 1-0 by Marconi Stallions in Round 17, and have picked up only two points on the road this season. Up against a determined Mt Druitt side, they will be in for another fight at Popondetta on Saturday.
Manly United v Sydney Olympic, 1pm at Cromer Park No 1
Manly United’s finals hopes were dealt a severe blow last weekend when they were beaten 3-2 by Sutherland Sharks; opening up a seven-point gap between the sides which might have only been one had Manly managed to win.
Instead, Sutherland are fourth while Manly have dropped to eighth, four points behind APIA Leichhardt and Sydney Olympic, and two behind Marconi.
Manly will feel they have to win this weekend, but can’t expect anything easier than in Round 17 as they take on another team chasing a spot in the top five.
Sydney Olympic were beaten 1-0 by Rockdale at Belmore Sports Ground last week; a result which, while not disastrous, was certainly undesirable with only five matches of the regular season remaining – two of those against top five teams.
Blacktown City v APIA Leichhardt Tigers, 1pm at Lily Homes Stadium
Blacktown City will look to reassert themselves at the top of the table when they welcome APIA Leichhardt to Lily Homes Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The leaders have dropped points in three of their last five games, including a 2-1 loss to second-placed Sydney FC last weekend, but remain seven points ahead in first with five rounds remaining.
Still, Blacktown will want to improve their form as they head into the finals, and this weekend face a team that should provide as good a challenge as any.
APIA Leichhardt travel to Lilys following a disappointing defeat to Hakoah in Round 17: having led at halftime, the Tigers ultimately lost 2-1 after Anthony Sparacino was sent off after the break. APIA remain fifth despite the defeat, level with sixth-placed Sydney Olympic and with a game in hand.
Wollongong Wolves v Hakoah Sydney City East, 1pm at Win Stadium
Wollongong Wolves were beaten 2-0 by Mt Druitt Town Rangers last weekend and have dropped tenth place after picking up just seven points in their last nine games.
This week’s fixture against Hakoah Sydney City East surely represents as good a chance as any to put three points on the board, though any late charge for the finals still seems unlikely – the Wolves are six points behind fifth-placed APIA Leichhardt, and the Tigers have a game in hand.
Hakoah travel to Win Stadium following a 2-1 win over APIA in Round 17, with Bradley Walker and Zachary Sapsford helping their side to its fourth win of a difficult season.
The visitors are seven points ahead of last-placed Sydney United but nine points behind fifth-placed APIA, with finals football a near-impossibility now.
-By Max Grieve