In a little over a month’s time (five weeks to be exact), the current NPL home-and-away league season will be over and attention will turn to the finals series and relegation/promotion play-offs.

With the season into the home stretch, the questions remaining are: Which team will win the Premiers’ Plate? Which teams will finish in the top two spots? Which teams will play finals football, and which team will be forced into the relegation play-off?

The race for the Premiers ‘Plate and top two spots is very much alive with four contenders each with a strong chance. Current leader Heidelberg United sits three points clear but South Melbourne, Bentleigh Greens, and Avondale FC are snapping at the Bergers’ heels.

A top two finish brings with it the reward of a week’s rest in the first week of the finals’ series, but as last seasons’ grand finalists South Melbourne and Oakleigh Canons proved last year, when they finished third and fourth, factors other than finishing top two can determine finals success. These include building momentum approaching finals series, as well as luck with injuries and suspensions. In addition, as last season’s Premiers plate winner Bentleigh Greens showed, a top-two finish is no guarantee of finals success particularly if you face a fixture congestion at the tail end of the season with league and FFA Cup matches.

Three of the top four contenders this season are scheduled to play a midweek Rd of 32 FFA Cup tie in the run home ensuring the depths of their squads will each be tested. South Melbourne faces Edgeworth, followed by Heidelberg hosting Perth Glory, and Bentleigh away to Hume City. Fortunately for these clubs they won’t have to travel interstate.

Of the top four sides still in the running for the Premiers’ Plate, Heidelberg United and South Melbourne FC appear to have the more favourable run home in terms of remaining opponents. The Bergers face just one other top four team (Bentleigh Greens) in their run home, while South faces two of the top four sides (Bentleigh Greens and Avondale FC). The Greens, on the other hand, must play all the other top four sides in their run home, and they have no catch-up games whereas South and the Bergers each have one catch-up match, and Avondale has two.

Of the two mid-table teams Oakleigh Cannons and Port Melbourne Sharks, the Cannons, currently sitting in seventh place two points ahead of Port with a game in hand, appear to have the best chance of reaching the finals. They have to play a couple of top-four opponents in the run home including a catch-up game against the Bergers, and a final game of the season against the Bentleigh Greens. Another factor which appears to work in the Cannons’ favour is that five of their six remaining matches are at Jack Edwards Reserve where they are undefeated this season. Although at first glance this would seem a definite advantage, they’ve actually won more games away this season than they have at home with just two wins from their eight matches at Jack Edwards this season. They’ll need to change this around if they’re to produce a similar surge into the finals series as they did last season.

While Port Melbourne Sharks are safe this season, Kingston City is yet to secure survival. With just two wins from their last 12 matches, Kingston lies in 11th spot just four points clear of the Melbourne Knights (in the relegation play-off spot) albeit with a game in hand. If Kingston can notch at least a couple more wins from their remaining six matches, they should secure survival by avoiding the play-offs. However it won’t be easy for the Reds as their last four matches are against top four opponents including two matches against Avondale (one of which is a catch-up) and games away to Heidelberg United and South Melbourne to end the season.

In NPL 2 W, Northcote are in pole position to win the title, leading the title race from Moreland Zebras by eight points with just six rounds to play. The Zebras have a game in hand, better goal difference, and a slightly easier run home than Northcote who have to play three other sides in the top four in the run home including a match-up with the Zebras. However Northcote has the advantage of still controlling their destiny at this stage.

This weekend’s NPL and NPL 2 matches include:

Rd 22 NPL: RD 23 NPL 2
Friday 14 July
· Pascoe Vale FC v Avondale FC
· Bentleigh Greens v Port Melbourne Sharks
· Oakleigh Cannons v North Geelong Warriors
· Melbourne Knights v South Melbourne

Saturday 15 July
· (East) Box Hill United v Richmond SC
· Green Gully v St Albans Saints (West) Brunswick City v Moreland Zebras
· Hume City v Heidelberg United Whittlesea Ranges v Northcote City

Monday 17 July
· Kingston City v Bulleen Lions