NET RESULT: Italo Stars’ Max Latimer (right) slots another goal, this time against Thistles. Latimer, who shared the Golden Boot award this season, looms as a big threat to Goonellabah in the preliminary final tomorrow.
NET RESULT: Italo Stars’ Max Latimer (right) slots another goal, this time against Thistles. Latimer, who shared the Golden Boot award this season, looms as a big threat to Goonellabah in the preliminary final tomorrow.

In-form Stars tough hurdle for Hornets

GOONELLABAH and Italo Stars face an all-or-nothing confrontation when they meet in the preliminary final of Far North Coast premier league soccer at Weston Park, Goonellabah, tomorrow from 2.30pm.

The winner will book their place in the grand final against defending champions Richmond Rovers next week, while the loser will hang up the boots for the season.

Rovers earned their place in the decider with a stunning 5-2 win over Goonellabah last week, leaving the Hornets determined to bounce back with a win over Stars for a second crack at the premiers in the decider.

But overcoming a ruthless Stars side that has already eliminated Lismore Workers and Byron Bay looms as the biggest challenge of the season for the Hornets.

Goonellabah used an unorthodox 4-3-3 formation in the big loss to Rovers last week but will return to their usual shape tomorrow, with Chris Matthews up front and Dave Arnett and Ben Andrews in close support from midfield.

“We'll be a bit more pragmatic against Stars, but we won't be sitting deep in defence, it will be a more familiar pattern designed to get the best out of each player,” Hornets coach Brendan Logan said.

The return of Mark Rosenstein to combine with Kale Hopper in central midfield will boost their hopes, but the loss of 'keeper Craig Attewell has suddenly thrust young replacement Brad Robertson into the spotlight.

Attewell is serving a one-week suspension after being sent off in the dying moments of the loss to Rovers, leaving Robertson to make his debut in the top ranks in one of the most pressure-charged games of the season.

But the 19-year-old former Grafton junior rep and now SCU student has been in good form in reserves and has the full confidence of Logan.

“He's a brave 'keeper with good vision and distribution; he's not just a shot-stopper,” Logan said.

While Robertson's shot-stopping skills are sure to be called into question at some stage, his nerves will also be tested in a baptism of fire for the young custodian.

The two sides have a win apiece in their prem-iership encounters, the last being a 3-1 home win for Stars over a depleted Goonellabah in the final round.

But when they last met at Weston Park, it was the Hornets who won 2-1 as part of their undefeated home record this season, which includes eight clean sheets from 10 games.

And the Hornets' defence, led by Paul Pomroy and Daniel Morrow, will need to be at its best again against a Stars attack bristling with goal scorers.

Foremost is Golden Boot winner Max Latimer, who scored twice in Stars' 3-1 win over Byron Bay last week, bringing his season tally to 18.

Midfielder Clint Willoughby is also in rare touch with goals in their past three games, while the seasoned Wayne Mortimer is always a threat and will start on the flank.

With players the quality of Bill Latimer on the bench, Stars have genuine depth to call on and also boast a line-up with more semi-final experience than the Hornets, but coach John Essex remains wary.

“Rosenstein and Andrews weren't there the last time we played them and they're danger players, along with Hopper in midfield and their strikers Arnett and Matthews,” Essex said.

“We'll need to ramp up our intensity five or 10 per cent, and we'll need to get on top in midfield if we want to win it.”

With both sides having high skill levels and good discipline, the difference could lie with sheer desire and passion, but in what looms as a tight encounter, it could even come down to the finest of margins - which team is better from the penalty spot in a shootout.

Big day for juniors

JUNIOR grand finals will start today, with 26 divisions being contested by 18 clubs at numerous venues.

Thistles have seven teams through to the deciders, making them the best represented club, ahead of Richmond Rovers and Alstonville, which each have six.

With the usual venue of Oakes Oval unavailable due to Lismore's upcoming Festival of Cricket, games will be hosted by Alstonville, Thistles, Rovers, Byron Bay and Ballina.

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