IT’S that time of the year for our national championship – the crucial time that separates the men from the boys, the final championship contenders from the also rans.
To accommodate the “summer” season kick-off in October, this year’s championship finishes in August and as such is already almost two-thirds completed.

It’s the time when the “hard luck” stories have worn thin, where the bounce of the ball has evened itself out and where the real contenders start to show their class.

With only 10 rounds remaining, it’s fair to say the national league has split itself into two categories – Marconi, Melbourne Croatia, Preston, St George, Apia, Sydney Croatia, South Melbourne, Sydney Olympic and Adelaide City being top five material – Wollongong, Melbourne City, Sunshine, Blacktown and Heidelberg for dreaded relegation.

At the top, Marconi, six points clear and a plus 27 goal difference (always a good indication of a team’s real ability), is the team to beat. In-form, free-scoring Melbourne Croatia, boasting the revelation of the season in second top scorer Zeljko Adzic, appears likely to join them. As does Preston which, along with Melbourne Croatia and possibly South Melbourne, pose the greatest threat to end Sydney’s recent dominance of the national competition.

If Marconi, Preston and Melbourne Croatia appear good bets to make the five, who will join them? Saints, with a couple of games in hand, could well do it despite going off the rails in their past two matches.

It will rank as one of Saints’ best ever achievements should they do so proving quite conclusively, again, that they are perhaps our only club to positively implement a real youth policy.

Apia, written off by all and sundry during a traumatic off-the-field upheaval during the off-season, is in the box seat to join them.

Of the remainder, I don’t feel Sydney Croatia is going to make it. Highly fancied pre-season, last year’s runner-up has been cruelly exposed for its lack of depth.

Injuries to key players Jennings, Franken and Rozic; 11 goals in 15 outings from the previously lethal attacking trio of Slater, Arnold and Lamond put a huge question mark over Sydney Croatia’s chances.

On what we’ve seen, Marconi, Melbourne Croatia, Preston and St George to be joined by either Apia, Sydney Olympic or South Melbourne for the final five.

At the bottom, Heidelberg seem doomed. To accompany them on the big drop will be either Wollongong, Sunshine, Blacktown or Melbourne City.

Blacktown, with three games in hand, is best placed to survive.

Wollongong, with guests on the way, also should avoid relegation worries leaving either of the Melbourne-based clubs – Melbourne City or Sunshine – to join Heidelberg in the State League in 1990.

Two matches live from Europe next Thursday morning on SBS Television – the Denmark v Greece World Cup qualifier at 2.30am, followed by the second leg of the Napoli-Stuttgart UEFA Cup Final at 5.30am …

And at 2am next Sunday morning, coverage of the Celtic-Rangers Scottish Cup Final.

The Sun Herald

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