Slice of Cheese

The Friday Forecast: A Huge Italian Derby

Solstice Photography

Welcome to the Friday Forecast for another week as I take a look at all the top division football taking place. There is no doubt where the biggest game of the round is this week, with the Italian Derby between Hobart Zebras and Launceston City set to be the biggest the two have ever played in the NPL Tasmania. With just three points separating the top four sides in the NPL, and second-placed Launceston City now just 3 points ahead of the third-placed Zebras heading into the contest, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The Zebras have hit form in recent weeks, although they haven’t been playing against the top sides. Despite the suspension of their coach Gabriel Markaj, who is three weeks into a five-week ban, they have chalked up wins of 9-0 and 5-0 over Clarence and Olympia in the past fortnight. Those games have seen them return to their free-scoring ways, that had them on top of the table through the early rounds of the season. It’s improvements in the defence that has been most encouraging however with some with mid-season arrivals in the form of Alexander Markaj, (brother of Gabriel) and fullback Riley Dillon bolstering the squad. Along with the returning Dwayne Walsh, the Zebras seem to have fixed up their leaky defence and turned it into an area of strength. How they stand up to the more dangerous attacks in the competitions is yet to be determined though.

City meanwhile have dropped back to back games and surrendered top spot on the table for the first time since claiming it back in Round 6. They have conceded 7 goals in the past 2 weeks, which is equal to the amount they shipped in the first 11 rounds. Despite these results, there is no reason for panic for a City side that could be in a very different spot entering this game, had they taken their chances this past fortnight. They had the better of the game against South Hobart only to lose it late, before dominating Devonport in the first half last week, but could only score once, leaving the door ajar for Devonport to smash through in the second half, as they claimed a 3-1 win. With their six-point buffer now wiped out, they will need to be more clinical in games such as this one.

Elsewhere on Saturday, the Eastern Shore Derby arrives at a time with both clubs desperate for points and looking to snap growing losing streaks.  Olympia has now dropped 3 consecutive games for the second time this year. They again failed to take a point from their tough slate of schedule that throws up Launceston City, Hobart Zebras and South Hobart in successive weeks. They are a perfect 5 from 5 against sides below them this year though and so you’d expect that becomes 6 from 6 against a Clarence side on an even worse run. The Reds have now lost their last 7 games but they did offer a competitive performance in their Round 7 meeting against Olympia. Ultimately that ended in a 3-1 win to the Warriors, but that combined with Clarence’s better performances this season coming at Wentworth Park, should give them some hope.

Up at Valley Road, the Devonport Strikers have wrestled control of top spot on the table and it’d be a shock if they surrendered it against the Kingborough Lions. The Lions have never won at that ground in NPL history and the Strikers are firing on all cylinders at present. With the title race so tight, they can’t afford to drop points at home to lower sides, but their form shows no indication they are in danger of doing so. The Lions have jumped up into sixth place with Olympia now in their sights, but after getting back on track with good wins over Clarence and Rangers at the Den, tougher fixtures now await. It starts with this tough trip to Valley Road and dates with Launceston City and South Hobart are to follow. They hung around and gave a good account of themselves in a 3-1 defeat at the venue earlier this season, but will need to improve given Devonports form.

On Sunday South Hobart may look at a chance to pad their goal difference and close the gap to Zebras as they take on Northern Rangers. With two of their top four rivals playing each other, fourth-placed South will gain ground at least one of them, provided they take care of business at home. Rangers have conceded some 30 goals in their past 7 games, so until they fix things at the back, the results won’t improve. They have typically given South some troubles, as they did in a close 3-2 South win back in Round 7. Those games have been at the NTCA though, at the Darcy Street Fortress, Rangers three most recent trips have ended in a pair of 5-0 losses and a 12-0 demolition!

Moving to the Women’s Super League, where surely the title race is all over bar the shouting! Ulverstone now lead by a whopping 12 points, and it is hard to picture a scenario where they drop a minimum of 12 points before the season is over, and that number is assuming Launceston City win out, which given their recent form seems even more unlikely. Only complacency or a ‘Homer at the Bat’ style scenario whereby every player suffers a freak accident or injury, could possibly spoil it now. Of course, their opponents this week in Kingborough are the only side to beat them this year, stunning them 1-0 in the Statewide Cup. So motivation should not be an issue for them as they step out to try and avenge that defeat. They created plenty of chances in that cup defeat, but need to ensure they take them this time of asking.

The two nearest challengers to Ulverstone have been Launceston City and Hobart Zebras, but both sides are looking a shell of their 2017 selves in recent weeks. It was City who comprehensively beat the Zebras down at KGV earlier this year, but their form of the past 2 weeks suggests that this should be a much closer affair even if Zebras have likewise been stumbling. What at the start of the year loomed as a game of monumental consequence, now serves only to sort out the race for second place between the Juventus clubs, with City potentially able to slam the door on Zebras with a win. With the talent in each of these squads, it should still be an entertaining clash all the same.

The race for second place does have another runner, and that is the Taroona Pirates who won a thriller over Clarence 5-4 midweek, to close within a point of Zebras. That was a catch-up game from Round 7, and now they are set to meet again just days later. This time it will be at Wentworth Park rather than KGV which should help Clarence, but will it be enough for them to flip the result? With Melissa Harrison leading the way, you have to give them a chance, because their form line is currently better than any team not named Ulverstone. With two games still in hand, Taroona probably looms as the bigger challenger to City for second spot. Whilst catching up to City looms as improbable, it is surely the target for a side whose ceiling is as good as anyone in the competition, but injuries have probably prevented them from hitting it.

Finally University face a big week against a South Hobart side looking to secure their safety for another season. If South win this it would open up a 9 point gap to the Students that should see them all but secure for next season. But if University wins, things will tighten right back up between the bottom four and we could well be left with just three points separating all four sides. As such this game is particularly important for both teams, South had their game washed out last week but the week prior they showed good form with a win over City. University meanwhile are enduring a tough run. After winning two of their first six games, they have now lost their past six and scored just the one goal in the process, a trend they simply have to reverse on Saturday at Darcy Street.