After another week without a blog (although there was an ambitious attempt to watch two football games at once) the Queenâ€™s Birthday long weekend was a perfect chance to get back into the habit of writing about suburban football for the seven people that read these things.
Sunday began with an NPL 1 game at Gabbie Stadium between two old rivals: Blacktown City and Bonnyrigg White Eagles. Unusually, Bonnyrigg have struggled this season, but games between these two tend to be closely-fought encounters, and this contest was no different.
I was looking forward to seeing Blacktownâ€™s two new signings: striker Peter Cejka, signed from Hills Brumbies, and FFA Cup goalkeeping hero Tomi Romic, signed from SD Raiders. It could be a while before we see Romic play for Blacktown though, as Tristan Prendergast started in goal on Sunday (apparently Romic has not been promised any game time).
The pattern for the game was established in the opening stages: Blacktown were looking to play balls over the top of the Bonnyrigg defence and utilise the pace of James Andrew. After Bonnyrigg keeper James Chronopoulous denied Andrew early on, Bonnyrigg took the lead. A left wing cross from Troy Danaskos found new signing Shervin Adeli, and Adeliâ€™s header deflected in off Giorgio Speranza.
Curiously, Bonnyrigg were persisting with a high backline despite being caught out a couple of times by Andrewâ€™s sheer pace. Eventually Blacktown made one of their chances count when Joey Gibbs played Andrew in on goal, with the young forward squaring to Mitch Mallia for a tap-in. Incredibly, Bonnyrigg still hadnâ€™t learned their lesson, and Blacktown took the lead just after the half hour. Giorgio Speranza played a ball over the top, and Andrew beat Chronopoulous to the ball, ensuring a simple finish into an unguarded goal. It should have been 3-1 a couple of minutes later after Andrew managed to dribble round Chronopoulous again. However, instead of shooting from a somewhat acute angle he inexplicably laid the ball off to Ken Chun, who passed to Gibbs. The shot was blocked, and a glorious chance was squandered.
Bonnyrigg had been mainly restricted to shots from distance in the first half, although Prendergast had to be alert to save a close range effort from Hassan Jalloh after a nice through ball from Mun-Soo Gil. However, it was from one of these long range efforts that Bonnyrigg found an equaliser of their own. Adeliâ€™s 30 yard strike cannoned off the post, and David Vrankovic was first to the rebound to make it 2-2.
Bonnyrigg made two subs at halftime, but it didnâ€™t affect the general flow of the game, with Blacktown still creating the majority of chances. Demons would retake the lead early in the second half â€“ Andrew poking the ball home from close range after nice interplay between Giorgio Speranza, Gibbs and Chun.
Things got even worse for Bonnyrigg a couple of minutes later, with Greg Kondek sent from the field for a second bookable offence. With the extra man Blacktown dominated the remainder of the contest, and Andrew should have completed his hat-trick just after the hour mark, but his underhit shot was cleared off the goalline.
In the final 15 minutes we got the chance to see Peter Cejka, who could have scored on his debut but fired over the bar from Malliaâ€™s cross. Of course, it wouldnâ€™t be a Blacktown City game without some nervous moments â€“ Daniel Araujo could have been sent off for a late challenge, and Demons also had to survive a 90th minute scramble in their own penalty box before securing the three points. The win keeps Blacktown in 2nd place behind APIA â€“ meanwhile Bonnyrigg are only concerned about avoiding relegation, and their battle with Melita will be one to look out for as the season draws to a close.
Blacktown City 3 (Mallia 24â€™ Andrew 31â€™ 55â€™)
Bonnyrigg 2 (G Speranza og 16â€™ Vrankovic 41â€™)
After the Blacktown game I would have gone straight to Valentine Sports Park to watch the NPL 2 game between Central Coast Mariners and the orange team (a.k.a. Spartans), had I known it was on. I arrived at halftime with the score at 2-2. It was a bit of an armwrestle in the second half, but the Mariners eventually prevailed. Michael Glassock put the Mariners in front after a peach of a cross from Reece Papadimitrios, and Gianni Stensness made the contest safe soon afterwards with a lovely curling strike from the edge of the box.
I was actually at Valentine to watch the NPL 3 game between Balmain Tigers and SD Raiders, which was held straight afterwards. It was good to see Tomi Romic there to support his old teammates, although he was kitted out in a full Blacktown City tracksuit, which is the most important thing, because heâ€™s ours now.
I was expecting a comfortable win for SD Raiders â€“ the previous two fixtures between these two teams had resulted in 6-2 and 5-1 wins for Raiders, and Balmain are currently last in NPL 3. Sure enough, Raiders dominated the first half. New signing Mitchell McLintock (from Mt Druitt Town Rangers) was heavily involved, and early on he set up Mark Symington with a 1-on-1 opportunity, but his shot saved by Balmain keeper Pat Ferrara. Just before the half hour McLintock had a 1-on-1 opportunity of his own, but Ferrara denied him as well.
Balmain were struggling to cope at this point, but Raiders were far from clinical in the final third, and at one point miscommunication between Symington and Daniel Bittar cost them the chance of a 3-on-1 counter attack. Soon afterwards Bittar should have put Raiders in front after intercepting a poor pass, but his effort went wide. When they werenâ€™t wasting chances, Raiders were coming up against a keeper in fine form, and Pat Ferrara reacted sharply to a loose ball to prevent McLintock from opening the scoring.
I got the feeling at the time that these misses would come back to haunt SD Raiders, and so it proved to be in the second half. The interval seemed to kill off their momentum, and while they still dominated possession, Raiders werenâ€™t able to create any clear-cut chances like in the first half. I spent most of the second half wishing I had watched the whole of the previous game as that would have been far more interesting to write about (if for nothing else than the joy of witnessing the orange team lose).
Balmain could even have nicked a winner with a bit of luck, Raiders survived a scramble in their own six yard box late on, and a minute later Dario Vujovic rounded the Raiders keeper â€“ unfortunately for Balmain he was forced wide, and gave the ball away when he tried to find a teammate.
This was definitely two points dropped for SD Raiders, and with a number of teams in finals contention this draw could prove very costly. Balmain are still last in NPL 3, but at least they picked up their first clean sheet of the season. This result could be vital in the relegation battle, with as many as five teams not yet safe from the drop.
SD Raiders 0
Since most NPL Womenâ€™s 1st Grade games are played on Sunday afternoons, I donâ€™t usually have the chance to watch them, as Iâ€™m either working or watching Blacktown City. However, due to the recent wet weather, the NPL 1 Womenâ€™s game between Sydney University and Illawarra Stingrays was moved to the public holiday Monday (with Seymour Shaw Park the new venue), and I jumped at the chance to watch players and teams I donâ€™t normally get to see.
In contrast to the previous nightâ€™s game between Balmain and SD Raiders, the goals came thick and fast in this one. In the eighth minute, Stingrays player Hannah Beard did well to intercept Kendall Fletcherâ€™s pass, heading it to the superbly-named Erica Halloway, who scored at the second attempt. However, Sydney Uni would be level soon afterwards when Clare Hunt got on the end of Stephanie Ambroseâ€™s free kick, heading home from close range.
Neither team looked particularly confident when defending, and it wasnâ€™t long before Illawarra retook the lead. Emma Rolston rose highest to meet a corner, and was credited with the goal, although Caitlin Cooper was robbed as the ball clearly deflected off her before going in, and without that touch the header would have been blocked on the line.
At this stage Illawarra were in control, but then Uni grabbed a second equaliser against the run of play. Melissa CÃ¡ceres dispossessed Caitlin Cooper before showing coolness in front of goal, lobbing advancing Stingrays keeper Kya Stewart to restore parity. Stingrays werenâ€™t deterred, and continued to pile on the pressure, but just before the interval Uni got another goal against the run of play to take the lead. Again it was CÃ¡ceres doing the damage, turning a defender brilliantly before slotting the ball past Stewart.
Uni started to take control of the game in the second half, which of course meant that it was Illawarraâ€™s turn to score against the run of play. A nice switch of play found Talitha Kramer, and she dribbled past a defender before squeezing a shot home from an almost impossible angle.
The pattern for the remainder of the game was Sydney Uni holding the majority of possession, with Stingrays threatening occasionally from counter-attacks. With just over ten minutes left Uni went close to regaining the lead twice in the space of a minute. First, Elizabeth Oâ€™Reillyâ€™s shot was blocked on the line, and then seconds later Rachael Soutar was millimetres away from scoring, crashing a 30 yard free kick off the underside of the bar.
At this point Stingrays were hanging on, but Erica Halloway almost won it for them in the dying minutes, first shooting straight at Uni keeper Georgia Boric after a nice turn, then a minute later being denied again by Boric after being played in on goal.
A draw was probably a fair result after a highly entertaining game, as both teams looked dangerous in attack but also had shaky moments defensively. Uni striker Melissa CÃ¡ceres was ruthless in this game, clinically taking both of her chances. For Stingrays, Erica Halloway was a menace (in a good way) for the whole game, pressing the Uni back four at every opportunity and showing the kind of form that won her the 2015-16 WSW W-League Player of the Year Award. Uni and Stingrays remain in 2nd and 3rd respectively, and are both one point behind Macarthur Rams.
Sydney University 3 (Hunt 14â€™ CÃ¡ceres 36â€™ 43â€™)
Illawarra Stingrays 3 (Halloway 8â€™ Cooper 26â€™ Kramer 54â€™)
After my sojourn to Seymour Shaw it was off to my favourite ground (to complain about), Lambert Park, for the NPL 1 clash between Sydney Olympic and Sydney FC. Before the game started I had the misfortune to witness a blocked, overflowing toilet in the menâ€™s bathrooms, and this smelly, disgusting sight would serve as an appropriate metaphor for the first half action.
There was a brief moment of excitement early on when William Angelâ€™s deflected cross struck the top of the crossbar, but the first half was a largely forgettable affair, with both sides unable to create any meaningful chances. Sydney FC keeper Mitchell Evans didnâ€™t look confident dealing with balls into the box, which was a sign of things to come.
Ten minutes into the second half we had an Olympic goal. Jinya An took an inswinging corner from the right, and his cross somehow evaded a clutch of players, and a despairing dive from Evans, before nestling in the back of the net. Despite now being behind, there wasnâ€™t much of a response from the Sky Blues, and Olympic werenâ€™t creating much either, save for a half-chance which Radovan Pavicevic fired into the side netting.
In the final ten minutes Sydney FC finally began to trouble Olympic. The ageless Paul Henderson reacted well when Daniel Maskin was played in, closing down the angle and deflecting the ball wide. From the resulting corner, Charles Lokolingoyâ€™s header was deflected wide, and the next corner resulted in a free header going wide of the target.
However, that was as good as it got for the Sky Blues, and Olympic were back on top for the rest of the game. Yu Kuboki showed good strength to hold off Brendan Curtis, but he didnâ€™t get enough height on his attempted chip, and Evans was able to get a hand to the shot.
In stoppage time Olympic sealed the win. Hagi Gligor won the ball on the edge of the Sydney FC box after Olympic pressed high up the pitch, and laid the ball off to An, who fired the ball through a defenderâ€™s legs and into the far corner.
This wasnâ€™t the prettiest win by any means, but nobody cares. Olympic remain six points behind the top two (APIA and Blacktown), and still have an outside chance of the Premiership, although their best chance of silverware may be the Grand Final. Sydney FC are out of the running for a Finals spot, but thanks to strong performances in U18s and U20s they have surely secured their spot in NPL 1 for 2018.
Sydney Olympic 2 (An 55â€™ 90+1â€™)
Sydney FC 0
Wednesday night was an unusual experience â€“ watching a game at Gabbie Stadium, but supporting the â€œawayâ€ side â€“ as NPL 2 outfit Hills Brumbies played NPL 1 side Blacktown City in the Waratah Cup Preliminary Finals. The week before, Blacktown City had come up with an ingenious plan: weaken your opponents by signing their main striker (Peter Cejka). Both he and Tomi Romic were cup-tied, but I still expected Blacktown to win fairly comfortably, despite the fog.
Hills, for some reason, decided to copy Bonnyriggâ€™s defensive tactics from the weekend. They set up with a very high backline, giving Blacktown plenty of space in behind to launch balls over the top for James Andrew. Demons played as they did on the weekend, looking for Andrew at every opportunity, but poor finishing (most notably when Andrew rounded the keeper and had his underhit shot cleared off the line â€“ again), as well as some good saves from Hills keeper Josh Stancic, kept the game goalless until the break.
Not that it was one way traffic. Hills were not afraid to attack, and created chances of their own in the first half. Hills winger Nathan Rayner had two 1-on-1 chances, but Tristan Prendergast was able to make the save on both occasions. Brumbies were also causing a bit of trouble with inswinging corners, although Prendergast was not forced into a save from any of their set pieces.
On to the second half, and the finishing didnâ€™t get any better initially, causing me to wonder if it was going to be one of those nights (thankfully Hills were a lot quieter in the second half, and were mainly restricted to shots from distance). Just after the hour mark the feeling of impending doom intensified when Joey Gibbs finally put the ball into the back of the net, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside.
I neednâ€™t have worried. A minute later Blacktown finally took the lead, and predictably it was James Andrew with the goal, beating a defender on the edge of the box before rolling the ball past Stancic. Two minutes later it was 2-0. Joey Gibbs stuck to the gameplan by playing a through ball for James Andrew, who outpaced the defence before lobbing Stancic.
More chances came and went as Blacktown tried to kill the game off (perhaps they were distracted by the increasing fog?), then with ten minutes left Joey Gibbs set up another goal, as Mitch Mallia made it 3-0 with a nice shot into the bottom corner. At this stage Hills looked like they gave up on the game to conserve energy for the weekend. Meanwhile, Blacktown took advantage of the Waratah Cup rule that allows you to make five subs, emptying their bench in the closing stages of the contest.
In the 88th minute James Andrew finally completed his hat-trick as he beat Stancic to a long ball, flicking the ball over the keeperâ€™s head before slotting the ball into an open goal. That wasnâ€™t the end of the scoring however: with the last touch of the game Mitch Mallia made it 5-0, heading in from the rebound after Andrewâ€™s header was blocked on the goalline.
The final scoreline masks a couple of deficiencies for Blacktown: they squandered a lot of chances before taking the lead, and they seem reliant on teams playing a high backline to create chances â€“ they are nowhere near as effective when opponents sit deep and deny space in behind. However, there are plenty of positives: James Andrew has now scored 13 goals this season, and Demons are in prime position to take advantage of APIAâ€™s annual collapse. That reminds me, Blacktownâ€™s Waratah Cup semi-final will be against APIA, also at Gabbie Stadium.
Hills showed a lack of tactical flexibility, and didnâ€™t adjust to Blacktownâ€™s obvious gameplan. While I admire their attacking approach, a more conservative gameplan could have frustrated Demons. They showed (in the first half at least) that they can create chances against NPL 1 opposition, so things might have gone their way with a more sensible defensive structure (as well as a bit of luck in front of goal). Despite the heavy defeat, Hills have has a brilliant season so far. In addition to reaching the FFA Cup Round of the 32 for the first time, Brumbies are in contention for a Finals spot, and are also in the top half of the Club Championship â€“ not bad for their first season back in NPL 2.
Hills Brumbies 0
Blacktown City 5 (Andrew 63â€™ 65â€™ 88â€™ Mallia 80â€™ 90â€™)