The stage is set for a massive title show down between the top two sides in the state when the Hobart JEEP Zebras take on the Devonport Strikers on Saturday.
Devonport v Hobart JEEP Zebras, Valley Road, Saturday 30 July, 2:00PM
The Strikers currently lead by just 2 points from the second placed Hobart JEEP Zebras who travel up to Valley Road riding a six match winning streak and having scored 15 goals in their last three matches. The Strikers are unbeaten since round 4 and have conceded just four goals in their last 12 league games.
The sides have split their two meetings so far in 2016, with both sides winning away from home against each other. Hobart Zebras won back in round 4 at Valley Road, 3-1 whilst Devonport won 2-1 in the game down at KGV in Round 11. Those two results remain each sides only defeat in the NPL this season, showing just how good they have both been.
With South Hobart, Olympia and Launceston City still to play, the Zebras have the more difficult run home so a win in this game, and the subsequent lead of 1 point would not assure them of the title. Whereas if Devonport were to take all three points, then it would be very hard to see them surrendering a five point advantage over the final 3 weeks with games against Rangers, Kingborough and Olympia to play.
The Zebras will be looking to use their pace to get in behind the defensive lines of the Strikers. With Dwayne Walsh in superb form it will be a massive task for youngster Dom Smith to contain him, the last time they met Smith shut him out very effectively but Walsh is one of the form players in the competition at the moment. Huigsloot is also a man in form but he meets a defensive pairing in Gratton and Zupo well equipped to dealing with him. Adam McKeown has also found his goal scoring touch again at the right time of year and so it will likely be in the wide areas, cutting inside that the Zebras will be best served looking to find a way through the yellow wall.
The Strikers have been a bit subdued in the past couple of weeks and there has been the suggestion that perhaps some fatigue could be effecting the squad, but a point away to South Hobart and a win over Launceston City on a heavy pitch shows they are still going just fine and expecting a side to dominate every week is unrealistic. They well undoubtedly adopt their usual style of sitting back and hitting long passes to their mobile front three, trying to hit the Zebras when they over commit forward.
Kingborough v Northern Rangers, Lightwood Park, Saturday 30 July 2:00PM
The Kingborough Lions will be looking to make it consecutive victories for the first time in 2016 and this is as good a chance as they will get up against the last placed Northern Rangers still on the hunt for their first win. Rangers will likewise be up for the game, hoping to avoid a winless year and knowing that this is also a good chance for them despite the improvement shown by the Lions as the season has worn on. The two times the teams have played this season have produced closely fought affairs. A 1-1 draw at the Den gave both sides their first points of the season whilst the Lions won the second game 2-1 up at the NTCA ground.
The Lions responded to the shock departure of their coach with a stirring performance down at the Den, thumping Olympia 5-2, despite playing much of the second half with 10 men. It was a performance that highlighted what this side can do when playing at their best. The test now is to produce those sort of performances without needing the added motivation that events of the week prior had provided them. With Shane Cartwright once again the best player on the field, Danny Cowen causing headaches up top and Mark Grace making quality saves they have a quality spine that can win games. Nick Cuthbertson will be out due to his red card however which could perhaps cause some issues at the back for a defence that has not been overly reliable in 2016.
The Rangers battled hard against South Hobart but were over matched and eventually went down 5-0. In that game they deployed a back five to try limit the damage and to try mark the dangerous Leszczynski out of the game, similar plans may well be made for Shane Cartwright this week, as curtailing his influence could go a long way to helping them stay close. Should they negate the Lions weapons, with Pat-Lanau Atkinson returning for this game and with Michael Monticchio making his long awaited return they have some attacking weapons of their own that could cause the Lions some headaches back the other way.
Clarence v Olympia, Wentworth Park, Saturday 30 July, 4:30PM
The final Eastern Shore Derby of the season and the final chance for Clarence to get one over their neighbours having lost the first two editions of the derby. The first was a cracking derby filled with drama and had Clarence hanging in there before falling 2-1 to a Zachary Drake wonder strike. The second edition at Warrior Park was one of Clarence’s worst performances of the season as the Warriors crushed them 5-0 with Jacob Leaman running all over them in a one sided game.
Clarence will be hoping that back at their home ground of Wentworth Park they can make life difficult for the Warriors but after being dominated by the Zebras last weekend they will need to offer a much improved performance. Nick Naden showed his quality with a sublime strike from long range but outside of that they created nothing and with Adam Hedge out injured they have looked much more fragile at the back, so scoring multiple goals is likely going to be required to get anything from this clash. The Warriors were physically overpowered by the Lions at times last week and Clarence do have some strong bodies in the side so from set pieces and by playing a compact, direct style of game they might have some joy.
The Warriors were humbled by the Lions in a week that saw them recruit their coach for the 2017 season but it was a very young side they put out on the park. That is likely what we will continue to see over the final month as the Warriors decide who figures into their plans for next year and testing the youngsters out at the top level. This does not mean they are sacrificing the desire to win, as they would surely love to make it 3 from 3 over Clarence in 2016.
Launceston City v South Hobart, Mitsubishi Park, Saturday 30 July4:30PM
Launceston City meet South Hobart in a late afternoon kick off on what should be a pretty difficult Mitsubishi Park pitch given the weather in recent weeks. Whilst their title ambitions are all but evaporated barring a spectacular collapse from the sides above them, South Hobart could yet catch the Zebras for second place and will be looking to win out over the final four weeks to maintain that pressure. City meanwhile are under threat from the Lions below them with the gap at just a point and need to finish the season strongly to hold onto fifth place.
City put in a spirited effort against the leaders Devonport last week and got their best result of the season against them in a 2-0 loss and will be hoping for a similar effort this week with a bit more cutting edge. It has been a constant problem for them this season, though to be fair, very few have been able to get past the Strikers defence this year. South Hobart will not be an easy opponent for them and having been on the receiving end of 10-0 and 8-1 thumpings from them this season it will be a matter of pride to at least try stay competitive against them this time around.
South Hobart were too strong for Northern Rangers as they continued to batter the sides below them on the table. Their record against those five sides this year is incredible. They are 12-0-0 with 70 goals for and just 8 goals against them in those games. It has been their inability to get results against Zebras and Devonport that what will cost them, but those numbers shows that they will enter this game with City as firm favourites and expected to once again win comfortably. Outside of the top two sides no defence seems able to hold out against an attacking line up littered with goal scorers and it’s hard to see how City will be able to contain them in this game.