By Jonno Ross
If any side can emerge as the Northern League’s second-best team, it’ll be decided this weekend when Melville United host Birkenhead United at Hamilton’s Gower Park.
It’s a given that Auckland City are unarguably the region’s best — they’ve taken 43 points from a possible 45 — but a group of four clubs have been hovering beneath them on the table.
City’s nearest rivals, Melville and Birkenhead, get the chance to show who really is second best, and it looks like being the game of the round.
Here’s our preview of the round:
Melville United (3rd) v Birkenhead United (2nd)
Gower Park, Hamilton
After their 1-0 defeat to Auckland City in round 12, Melville United have resumed the winning form they displayed before that loss, with a 5-0 demolition of Bay Olympic, and a 2-0 win against Takapuna.
Kieran Richards’ introduction to Melville’s line-up in round 11, when he scored, has rejuvenated the side’s attack. The 21-year-old, who has had stints with the Wellington Phoenix, Auckland City, Western Springs and Eastern Suburbs, has scored seven goals since — three in the Chatham Cup and four in the league.
Melville gave up their second place to Birkenhead when they lost to City, and the Waikato side will be hungry to wrestle that table spot from the team they beat 1-0 in the reverse fixture, thanks to an Oliver Colloty goal.
Leading scorer Colloty will want to end his five-game goal drought (the longest he hasn’t scored all season), and if the Richards hot streak continues, Melville will be hard to go past.
Birkenhead United find themselves in the best form of their season.
Undefeated in eight games (in league and cup), they have won seven and drawn one. The only other team in the competition with a better current record is … you guessed it, Auckland City.
In the league, Birkenhead have picked up 16 points from a possible 18, and off these stats, there is no argument as to where they sit on the table right now.
A win for Birkenhead would see them go four points ahead of third place, keeping at least some semblance of pressure on Auckland City, who are 12 points clear after their midweek win against Eastern Suburbs.
A loss would see them drop to third, swapping places with their opponents this weekend.
My bold prediction is a 1-1 draw, Melville’s first draw of the season.
Bay Olympic (6th) v Manukau United (7th)
Olympic Park, Auckland
It’s been a tough couple of rounds for Bay Olympic.
After snipping at the heels of Auckland United, just three points behind 4th in round 12, Bay Olympic have suffered two heavy back-to-back league defeats, losing 5-0 to Melville, and then falling 3-0 to Birkenhead last weekend.
They now sit seven points off 4th, and only two points ahead of this weekend’s opponents.
They will draw confidence from the fact that in the reverse fixture, they came away with a 3-2 victory.
Trying to find consistency is still the story of Bay Olympics’ season, only managing to win back-to-back games just twice this campaign. If Bay can manage the win this weekend, they have a good chance of making it two in a row next week when they come up against Eastern Suburbs.
Like Bay Olympic, Manukau United have had an up-and-down season. With the exception of the result against Melville, where they won 1-0 in the 89th minute, they seem to be plucking points off the teams who are below them in the league.
Last week’s 6-0 victory against North Shore United came at just the right time, as it was their first win since they beat Waiheke United 3-2 in round 12.
United will go into this game seeking revenge on Bay Olympic who won in the opening round.
A win for Manukau would see them switch places with Bay Olympic, whereas a loss would likely see them drop to 8th, as Western Springs are expected to beat North Shore United.
Steve Sumner Cup
Saturday’s match between Waiheke United and Auckland City will be for the Steve Sumner Cup, a trophy that honours the memory of one of New Zealand’s greatest players.
Holders Auckland City will defend the trophy against Waiheke who established it in 2017 as a challenge-based cup.
Other fixtures (with current league placings)
Waiheke United (11th) v Auckland City (1st)
Onetangi Sports Complex, Waiheke, 3pm
Hamilton Wanderers (5th) v Takapuna (10th)
Porritt Stadium, Hamilton, 3pm
North Shore United (12th) v Western Springs v (8th)
Allen Hill Stadium, Auckland, 3pm
Eastern Suburbs (9th) v Auckland United (4th)
Madills Farm, Auckland, 3pm
How they stand
Last weekend’s games
Friends of Football writer Jonno Ross is a former New Zealand U-20 goalkeeper who is the team manager for Mount Albert Ponsonby. He supports the All Whites, the Football Ferns, the Wellington Phoenix and Arsenal.
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