By John Donnachie / www.asbpremiership.co.nz
Can the Canterbury United Dragons stop the express juggernaut that is reigning champions Waitakere United?
As the halfway stage of the regular ASB Premiership season approaches, the West Aucklanders have already pulled away from the rest of league.
Having won all their matches (6 from 6), they enjoy an six point cushion, and boast a vastly superior goal difference to anyone else.
Canterbury have gone four matches in a row without a win but arguably presented Waitakere with their toughest challenge to date so far.
At Fred Taylor Park, the red and blacks lost narrowly 2-1, after playing virtually an hour of the contest with ten men.
However, a recent slump in form coupled with the loss of captain Daniel Terris and club stalwart Andy Pitman through suspension, suggests the hosts will be up against it come Sunday.
Still, Dragons' coach Keith Braithwaite believes that spirited performance from the previous encounter will give his side the belief to challenge the champions’ impressive 100 percent record.
“We gave them a good go up there with 10 men, and I'm sure we have the squad to get a result this week. There are opportunities for the players coming in to show what they can do. Anything is possible in this league, though it will be a big ask.”
If Canterbury are going to trouble the champions, keeping 11 players on the park throughout is a must.
Braithwaite meanwhile, defended his side's recent troubles with red-card dismissals.
“I don't believe we have been getting much from lady luck with some decisions. Obviously, players and coaches get upset and frustrated over things -but I do not think we have any disciplinary issues here.”
Canterbury welcome back central midfielder Joe Murray who was unavailable for last weekend's controversial defeat at Otago United. Nick Wortelboer is expected to switch from left to right back to cover for Dan Terris. Either Jeremy Wild or Jordan Swaney will deputise at left back.
Braithwaite said he was confident that influential central defender Gareth Rowe would be available again, for a repeat of last season's Grand Final showdown.
Prior to locking swords in last April's Grand Final, Canterbury condemned Waitakere United to their biggest Premiership defeat ever- outside Auckland, when they hammered Neil Emblen's side 4-0.
The Waitakere coach needs no reminding.
“We have a lot of respect for them. The last time we were in Christchurch we failed to score. I do not think that has happened to us since. We were out-played and out-thought that day, so it is a good reminder for us.”
Emblen said there was no secret formula to his team's runaway start to the Premiership race.
“It's just hard work really. I guess it is the culmination of three years work. During that period we focused on bringing youth players through the system. That has always been our plan.
The Waitakere coach recognises the significance of another win on Sunday. “It would put us 13 points ahead of Canterbury, who are one of our biggest rivals. So yeah, it would be nice to go into Christmas having played them twice with that sort of lead.”
The champions have plenty of options for team selection. Emblen hinted that one or two youth players may be included in the first team squad. Otherwise, there are no injuries apart from the long-term absentees – Jason Rowley, Neil Sykes, Martin Bullock and Andy Ralph.
The match kicks off at the later time of 3pm, to accommodate both clubs' appearance in the ASB Youth League Final.
Joe MURRAY, Gareth ROWE and reserve goalkeeper Coey TURIPA all return to the squad.
Zane SOLE and Mike GWYTHER return to the squad after being dropped for last weekend. Ashton PETT and Sean LOVEMORE will rejoin their teammates after lining up against them for Wellington Phoenix ‘A’ in Wednesday's ASB Challenge.
Canterbury captain Dan TERRIS and coach Keith Braithwaite are both suspended following their respective red cards last weekend while player/assistant coach Andy PITMAN joins them on the sidelines following his suspension-earning fourth yellow card of the season.
Youth League captain Tim PAYNE returns to that squad for the ASB Youth League final against Canterbury, as does Ant HOBBS, while an ankle injury keeps defender Jason ROWLEY out. Ryan DE VRIES is still overseas, while Andy RALPH, Neil SYKES and Martin BULLOCK are all injured.
After wins in their opening two fixtures, Canterbury have picked up just two points from a possible 12 in their last four matches. Canterbury United has won one, drawn one and lost six of its previous eight matches with Waitakere United including last season's ASB Premiership Grand Final defeat. Last season's 4-0 win over Waitakere remains Canterbury's biggest win over the defending champions.
Waitakere United's biggest win over Canterbury United was a 9-1 thrashing dished out in 2007-08 season. Waitakere has won nine, drawn three and lost five matches to Canterbury since the ASB Premiership began in 2004-05 season.
ASB Premiership - Week 9
Sunday 19 December, 2010
1- Tom BATTY (GK)
1- Danny ROBINSON (GK)
3- Nick WORTELBOER
3- Aaron SCOTT
4- Gareth ROWE
4- Tim MYERS
5- Tom SCHWARZ
6- Jack PELTER
6- Glen COLLINS
8- Chris BALE
7- Aaron CLAPHAM
9-Luiz DEL MONTE
8- Darren OVERTON
10- Allan PEARCE
9- Russell KAMO
12- Roy KRISHNA
11- Ryan FAICHNIE
13- Mike GWYTHER
12- Gagame FENI
16- Neil EMBLEN
13- Garry McDERMOTT
17- Jake BUTLER (C)
14- Joe MURRAY
18- Dakota LUCAS
15- Danny ATTWELL
19- Zane SOLE
17- Ryan TIPPETT
22- Liam LITTLE (GK)
22- Coey TURIPA (gk)
23- Ashton PETT
23- Andy BARTON
25- Sean LOVEMORE