Unusually, just the one NPL game for me this weekend, but thankfully there was midweek football on offer as the FFA Cup qualifiers have begun for FNSW teams. My first FFA Cup tie for this year was at Ernie Smith Reserve, with newly-promoted SD Raiders taking on fellow NPL 3 outfit Balmain Tigers for the second time in four days, the encounter on the previous Saturday resulting in a convincing 6-2 win for SD Raiders.
Despite the recent rain, the surface at Ernie Smith was in very good condition, and this allowed Raiders to use their pace up front to full effect. Balmain were outclassed as Raiders moved into a 3-0 lead, unable to keep up with the speed of their opponents and seemingly not tactically savvy enough to sit deep and deny them space in behind. A scrappy goal just before halftime wasn’t enough to give Balmain any momentum going into the second half, and Raiders scored twice more in the second half to complete a convincing 5-1 victory.
The ‘magic’ that enabled Balmain to reach the FFA Cup Round of 32 in 2015 has well and truly disappeared, and they look to be one of the early favourites for relegation, fears that will not have been allayed by another heavy loss last weekend (6-0 against Dulwich Hill).
On to the weekend, and I got to enjoy Blacktown City’s opening home fixture against Sutherland Sharks from the comfort of the corporate box at Lilys Football Centre. There were plenty of sandwiches available, but others at the game weren’t so fortunate. Last week’s poor weather led to many teams scrambling to find available synthetic pitches so that games wouldn’t have to be rescheduled for weeknights later in the season. However, no such issues with the surface at Lilys Football Centre, which is playable even when the adjacent park is underwater.
Blacktown started the better of the two teams, with Sutherland’s only real chance of the first half coming after a poor giveaway by Zach Cairncross. Thankfully for City, Nathan Elasi could only shoot straight at Blacktown keeper Tristan Prendergast. City seemed to be targeting Sutherland’s left side, with Mitch Mallia in particular looking to exploit the space in behind Matthew Gordon so he could run at Sutherland centre-back Nick Littler. With 35 minutes played this almost paid off, an excellent run from Mallia ending with him striking the outside of the post from the edge of the box.
Four minutes before halftime Blacktown took the lead, and the only surprising thing was that it came after an attack down the left. Matt Lewis had shown his desire to bomb forward from centre-back in last week’s game against Hakoah, and he did so again here to good effect, as Lewis linked well with Giorgio Speranza before picking out James Andrew. The young forward was unable to score against his former club, but Daniel Araujo was quickest to react, slamming home the rebound.
City continued their dominance into the second half, and should really have extended their lead, with Araujo, Evans and Gibbs all missing good chances. The misses would come back to haunt Blacktown, as Sutherland equalised just after the hour. Sutho kept the ball alive after a couple of 50-50 chances on the edge of the Blacktown penalty area, and when the ball fell to Tomohiro Kajiyama he took full advantage, lashing the ball home from just inside the box.
Blacktown coach Mark Crittenden went to his bench almost immediately, with Danny Choi introduced in place of James Andrew. Crittenden also decided to change his team’s formation in a similar manner to last week, switching from a 3-4-3 to a 4-3-3, with Matt Lewis pushed into midfield.
As expected, Danny Choi made an immediate impact with some dangerous runs down the left. Blacktown looked closest to breaking the deadlock, with Araujo having a very good shout for a penalty waved away, before last week’s hero Shayne d’Cunha forced a good save from Sutherland keeper Nathan Denham.
With 13 minutes left Blacktown regained the lead, and predictably Choi was involved. His cross from the left was met by Araujo, who did well to keep his volley down, although Denham might be disappointed as the ball seemed to trickle past him into the net. Sutherland were kept mostly quiet in the closing stages, although Prendergast made a brilliant save in stoppage time, clawing Nick Littler’s free kick away from the top corner.
It’s always good to get the first win, although Blacktown are nowhere near the performance levels of last season. Demons have looked better when playing 4-3-3, as opposed to the 3-5-2/3-4-3 used in preseason, and I wonder if a switch to the formation used in the last two seasons is on the cards. Next up for Demons is an away trip to long-time rivals Bonnyrigg White Eagles, who will be keen to get off the mark after opening the season with two losses.
Sutherland have shown in their opening two fixtures that they can score goals (and they did so here despite limited chances), but the defensive issues from last year don’t appear to have been solved. It doesn’t get any easier for Sutho, as next up is a game against APIA Leichhardt, who have started brightly and have two wins from their opening two games.
Blacktown City 2 (Araujo 41’ 77’)
Sutherland Sharks 1 (Kajiyama 61’)
– Eric Subijano