Life on the road has brought contrasting fortunes for two of the traditional NPL powerhouses this season.
So far both Heidelberg United and South Melbourne FC have been forced to play all their league fixtures away from home, and while the Bergers have made a great start winning all their matches, continuing where they left off after last season’s successes, the Lakesiders have struggled, winning only one of their opening six league matches.
This weekend fans of both teams have the opportunity to watch them play at home, and to mark each occasion, each team will host a traditional derby.
On Sunday at Lakeside, South Melbourne hosts Bentleigh Greens in a matchup between two teams which have built an intense rivalry over recent years, due to both challenging neck and neck for the title of most successful club of the NPL era.
The last time they met at Lakeside was in last season’s epic NPL semifinal when the Greens’ edged out South by the slenderest of margins through a penalty shoot-out after both teams finished at 2-2 after extra time. The Greens went on to win the championship the following week.
It’s a long time since they’ve met with such a large gap in the ladder standings between the two teams.
South have struggled this year, currently sitting in 10th place on the ladder with just a single league win and an early exit from the FFA Cup, a competition the club believes is such an important opportunity to showcase itself on the national stage.
South have been creating chances and scoring goals this season, but they’ve also conceded too often, averaging more than two goals per game which is a reflection perhaps of the wholesale changes made in defence in the off-season.
As well as the changes in defence, new coach Sasa Kolman believes that, although the team has usually begun well in matches, it has paid the penalty for lapses in concentration and discipline. Speaking to Football Nation Radio soon after the loss last week to Melbourne Knights, Kolman said, “I do believe we are always the dominating side in the games for at least 60-70 minutes. We control the game, we score the goals and then we just switch off. It’s basically our concentration and our discipline. So we’ve got to be working on that. Some of the players need to realise that they’re playing for a big club. It’s a shirt with a lot of weight. They can’t be switching off 10-20 minutes every game. Once we start getting that right, then this squad is going to be good.”
Kolman says of the forthcoming match against the Greens, “We just want to prove our worth. We just want to come back home and prove to everyone we’ve been very unlucky with the start of the season. And once we get back home and we start getting results, especially the one against Bentleigh, we just want to send the message out, this is it. This is the time when we start picking up. It’s like any other game. South Melbourne needs to go and win every single game. Doesn’t matter if its Bentleigh, Knights, or Heidelberg. We’ve got to go out there and get the three points. We had a slow start, but it happened to us last year and we picked it up once we moved back home. So hopefully everyone will come down and support us.”
In contrast to South’s season, the reigning NPL champs Bentleigh Greens have exceeded all expectations (including coach John Anastasiadis’) by winning all six matches so far this season desite a huge player turnover in the off-season. No less than 10 of the squad that played South in last season’s semifinal, departed in the off-season. One of those Andy Brennan will line up for South against his old team.
Whilst Bentleigh coach Anastasiadis acknowledges the importance of the derby to the fans, he emphasises that his team will treat it as any other game and play to win the match.
Speaking on Bentleigh Greens TV after last week’s win away to Hume City, the coach said of the upcoming match, “South Melbourne is South Melbourne. Like I said, we just look at it as three points and we’re going to go out there and try and get the three points and nothing else. We know it will be a big game, but for us every week’s a big game for us. That’s the culture we’ve got and we’ve drilled into the players. Every week is a cup final and you’ve got to be at your best.”
Before South meets Bentleigh at Lakeside on Sunday, Heidelberg United will host the Melbourne Knights today in the first game at Olympic Village this season. George Katsakis’ Bergers have been tested physically by opponents in recent weeks, and the Bergers it seems have come through shaken but not stirred.
Key forward Sean Ellis limped out of the match against Northcote City last week with what looked like a serious knee injury, while midfield strongman Harry Noon was also forced from the field after suffering a heavy knock, and midfielder Andreas Govas also sustained an injury.
Today’s match against the Melbourne Knights is sure to test the depth of Katsakis’ squad. The mid-table Knights will go into the match with some confidence having taken South Melbourne’s scalp last week and eager to add that of the high flying Bergers.
In other Round 7 league matches this weekend, 12th-placed Northcote City hosts top four side Green Gully today in what will be another stern test at home for Eric Vassiliadis’ team. The free scoring Gully is unbeaten in its last five league matches although it is yet to defeat a top six team.
After battling it out for league points today, both these teams will return to John Cain Memorial Reserve just three days later to contest a Round 6 FFA Cup tie on Tuesday night.
In other league matches played last night, Port Melbourne Sharks were looking to consolidate its place in the top six when it hosted struggling newcomers Dandenong Thunder, whilst eighth-placed Oakleigh Cannons travelled to league leader Avondale.
The Sharks will also back up on Tuesday night for a mid-week FFA Cup home tie against NPL 2 side Sunshine George Cross.
Closing out the Round 7 league matches on Monday night, Kingston City is hoping to bounce back from a late loss to Oakleigh Cannons last week, in a mid-table home clash against Pascoe Vale.