IT’S IN! Jacob Arthur puts the ball in the back of the net for Thistles’ winning goal against Byron Bay last weekend.
IT’S IN! Jacob Arthur puts the ball in the back of the net for Thistles’ winning goal against Byron Bay last weekend.

Lots at stake today for fierce rivals

THE premiership aspirations of joint leaders Richmond Rovers and Byron Bay will be on the line today when they square off in one of the biggest games of the season in Far North Coast premier league soccer.

Byron has the home advantage for the 5pm kick-off, with the fierce rivalry between the sides illustrated by their remarkable record of having drawn their past five games over almost three years.

But neither side can afford another draw, with Goonellabah just a point behind and ready to snatch the lead if the points are shared.

While defending premiers Rovers have the advantage of a game in hand, coach Scott Coster doesn't want the title race to go down to the final round, when they have to play Italo Stars.

“This is the biggest game of the year for us; we have a hard run home and can't afford to drop any points from now on,” he said.

Coster will give forceful midfielder Aaron Heffernan right up to kick-off to prove he's recovered from an ankle injury to join an otherwise full-strength squad.

The Rams are not so fortunate, with their key attacking combination of Jed Wright and John Bradbury missing, but the return of authoritative central defender Bruce Morhaus will allow Ian Lennie to push forward and inject a more physical element into midfield.

And the Rams will need to match the intensity of Rovers' hard, physical game, particularly in midfield where Heffernan, Brett Lane and Russell Dent have laid the platform for so many wins.

Rovers are still the only undefeated side and go in with the better form after a comfortable 4-0 win over Bangalow last week, while the Rams lost in an upset to Thistles.

“We've struggled a bit with injuries and form in recent weeks, but our aim at the start of the season was to make the semis again and we've done that, so in a lot of ways the pressure is off us,” Rams coach Peter Ware said.

“It's now time to get back to enjoying our soccer rather than worrying about the prem-iership.”

Ware will stick to the attacking formation that has made Byron the top-scoring side in the league, while Rovers boast the best defensive record with a miserly seven goals conceded in 14 games.

The battle between their back three of Joel Saye, Mitchell Flower and Adam Gray against the Rams' attack, led by the league's top scorer Jordy Campbell and Brazilian Thiago Priori, will be a highlight, while at the other end Rovers will look to strikers Troy Matthews and Tim Casagrande to take their chances.

Casagrande has had the 'flu this week and could come off early, opening the door for powerhouse striker Tim Sheridan to play a role. His potential duel with Rams defender Bruce Morhaus could be fascinating.

Workers' charge

LISMORE Workers will hope to keep their late charge for a semi-final berth on track with an away win over relegation-threatened Bangalow today.

The Redmen joined Ballina in fifth place after taking four points from their double-header last weekend and, after a 3-0 win over the Bluedogs in the first round, will be favourites.

Both sides have key players missing, with goalkeeper Thomas Chen and midfielder Josh Wraight out of Workers' line-up, while Bangalow have big striker Aryan Fereisch out, along with Christian Brown and Pat Diamond.

But with Carlos Argent and Conner Benfield returning, the Bluedogs will still field a side capable of upsetting Workers if they play to their best.

“It's our last home game and the boys are pumped up for it; we want to put the relegation issue to bed before the final round by picking up a few more points,” stand-in coach Peter Rologas said.

The key for Workers will be the performance of their more experienced players such as 2008 Player of the Year Anthony Alvos and his midfield partners Brendan Keevers and Zac Crowley, along with replacement 'keeper Scott Collis.

It's a 3pm start at Bangalow.

Injured Hornets

A LONG injury list is threatening Goonellabah's premiership ambitions, but hopes are high for the return of midfielder Marc Rosenstein and defender Paul Pomeroy for the Hornets' crucial away clash with Lennox Head.

The pair missed last week's frustrating draw with Ballina, which left Goonellabah a point behind joint leaders Rovers and Byron.

Even if they do return, the Hornets will still be without Ben Andrews, Joel Gosper and Jarrad Doyle as they face a desperate Sharks outfit that has just three games left to claw its way off the foot of the ladder and avoid relegation.

Kick-off is set for 5pm.

Hot and cold Stars

ITALO STARS will be looking for some consistency before the semi-finals, starting with an away win over Alstonville.

Stars have been hot and cold this season, but coach John Essex is now calling on his players to lift their focus for a big finish.

“Late goals have cost us several games this year and we have to concentrate for the full 90 minutes every week from now on,” Essex said.

While Stars will start favourites, their depth will be tested with Bill Latimer, Sam Little, Matt Pratten and Kyle Hughes unavailable, and doubts over Clint Willoughby and Jake Pratten.

Villa also have several in doubt, including Richard Russell, Andy Collins and Kurt Stephens, but coach Mark Ambler is predicting a big performance from his side.

The game will start at 5pm.

Fifth spot on the line

ONE Sunday game will be played, with Ballina needing an away win over Thistles in Lismore to help consolidate fifth place.

The seasiders have Clint Colless suspended with his place being taken by Dylan Monnox, who will move into midfield with player-coach Troy Percival, behind young strikers Blake Astley and Matt Jeffery.

While Ballina will be favoured to win, Percival remains wary of the unpredictable Blues, who are out of semi-final contention but still downed Byron Bay last week.

The game will start at 2.30pm.

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