It's close right through

AFTER one of the closest seasons in years, the fate of the minor premiership, the fifth semi-final spot and the relegation issue remain unresolved going into the penultimate round of Far North Coast premier league soccer.

In a hectic schedule, seven games are set down for this weekend, with four clubs facing crucial double-headers today and tomorrow.

The final round is next week.

Defending premiers Richmond Rovers are trying to stave off challenges from Byron Bay and Goonellabah to clinch their third straight minor premiership.

Ballina and Workers are vying for fifth place, while four sides remain embroiled in the relegation dogfight - Bangalow, Lennox Head, Thistles and Alstonville.

Rovers have the inside running in the premiership race with three home games to finish, starting with their local derby against Thistles today.

The premiers are expected to run on a similar line-up to the side that helped produce one of the games of the season last week, a 2-all draw with Byron Bay.

“If we play as well as last week we should win, but Thistles are always tough and we only had a 1-all draw against them last time, so we really need to maintain our form and our focus,” Rovers coach Scott Coster said.

Thistles' hopes of an upset to pull away from the relegation zone will not be helped by the suspension of Matt Parrish, one of their key players.

The fiery midfielder was sent off in the Blues' 2-1 loss to Ballina last week and will miss their last three games.

But with young guns Brenton Parrish and Jacob Arthur up front, and midfield general Darren Beardow in good form, the Blues have the potential to cause Rovers some problems.

“The boys are playing for their season now, so they'll be pumped up,” coach Ken MacPherson said.

In a tough ask for Thistles, the Blues have to back up after playing the top side by taking on the third-ranked side, with a home clash against Goonellabah tomorrow.

With the Hornets likely to have their premiership hopes on the line they will start favourites, but much will depend on how the two sides back up after tough clashes today.

Goonellabah face a full-strength Alstonville side desperate to guarantee its place in the league for next season when they meet at Weston Park today.

After last week's shock loss to Lennox Head, Goonellabah coach Brendan Logan has hinted at changes to his attacking options and wide players.

“We had a good chat at training about what we need to do to get back into a positive frame of mind; its a mental thing, not physical,” Logan said.

Logan will be hoping Ben Andrews declares himself fit and, after missing most of the season, his return could provide a timely boost for the Hornets' fading premiership hopes.

Plenty to play for

HAVING moved off the foot of the ladder with an upset win over Goonellabah last week, Lennox Head will be out to claim another top-five scalp when they meet Ballina at Saunders Park today.

Another win for the Sharks would all but eliminate the threat of relegation, but with Ballina needing to consolidate its tenuous grip on fifth place, both have plenty to play for at the Seahorses' home ground.

The Sharks will not be helped by the absence of top scorer Sam Tancred with broken ribs and player/coach Paul Kirkland with a bad cork, while Ballina welcome back Clint Colless, who will join Matt Jeffery up front.

Ballina coach Troy Percival conceded drawing all six of their home games had taken a mental toll on his players, but is calling on them to lift.

“Yeah, the draws have knocked them around mentally and the heads have been down a bit, but it's now time to look to the future and show whether we want to make the semis or not,” he said.

For Lennox Head coach Kirkland, the equation is simple.

“A win equals safety for us; this is our grand final for the season,” he said.

Play-off for fifth

AFTER facing a desperate Lennox, Ballina will have to back up tomorrow for what looms as a virtual play-off for fifth place against Lismore Workers.

The seasiders have the home advantage for what will be a pressure-charged affair, with the Redmen also backing up after what looms as a tough match for them today, a home clash with joint leader Byron Bay.

While Byron Bay had an emphatic 5-2 win early in the season, Workers are a much better side now and with in-form Anthony Alvos moving into a striking role, they will be dangerous on the counter.

Luke Pirlo returns to their backline, but midfielder Brendan Keevers will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, while the Rams have central defender Bruce Morhaus suspended and speedy flanker John Bradbury still injured.

The good news for the Rams is the return of midfielder Jed Wright and, while they look the stronger side on paper, coach Peter Ware remains wary.

“Alvos will be a danger and they play a good structure, so we're expecting a tough game from a side with a lot to play for,” he said.

Tough assignment

LAST-PLACED Bangalow have just two games left to avoid relegation, starting with a tough assignment against Italo Stars today at Barrow Lane, North Lismore.

Stars had a comfortable 5-1 win over the Bluedogs just a few weeks ago and despite the possible absence of senior players Clint Willoughby and Wayne Mortimer, they should take the points.

That would leave Bangalow needing a win in their final game against Thistles next week to have any chance of avoiding the cut.

But in their favour, the return of defender Christian Brown will give the Bluedogs a full-strength squad that will adopt an attacking formation, pushing Joel Rudgley forward to join striker Aryan Fereisch.

“The boys have had a good talk about the situation and trained hard, they're pumped up for a big finish,” Bangalow coach Damon Bell said.

All games today start at 3pm and all games tomorrow at 2.30pm.

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