Football: Strong focus needed as ranks thin

Otago United has lost its classiest defender, Tristan Prattley, to top team Waitakere, and now a severe shoulder injury has sidelined flying winger Joel Stevens.

It is far from ideal preparation for the resumption of the ASB Premiership and an away game against Manawatu tomorrow.

Both Prattley, who moved in the transfer window, and Stevens were good enough to be selected in the league's team of the month in December.

Prattley went close to making the New Zealand Olympic side, and it was in national under-20 trials last weekend that Stevens dislocated his shoulder. In a practice match that was to be played in three segments, Stevens impressed. But after his first stint, he was asked to fill in for an injured player. He eagerly agreed, then fell awkwardly in a tackle and sustained the injury.

Fresh back from an overseas holiday, Richard Murray was dismayed at the news. Matters were compounded as Otago's coach found out more players would be absent.

Winger Regan Coldicott may yet play, but was doubtful in midweek due to a back injury, suggesting a lopsided team because Coldicott, Stevens and Prattley all favour playing on the left side of United's first-choice team.

And Murray's cup really overflowed with news that utility Andrew Ridden and goalkeeper Peter Evans are not available this week.

Tomorrow's game against Manawatu has been targeted as a three-pointer, with even more difficult games soon to follow against Auckland and Canterbury.

In the first match of the season, coach Stu Jacobs' Manawatu grabbed an impressive 3-0 win in Dunedin and will be keen to repeat that result at home.

Manawatu's ace goal-scorer, Tom Mosquera, got a hat trick that day and has carried on to lead the golden boot race with seven goals. Another player capable of inflicting damage to Otago is Vanuatu striker Sele Soromon.

''For us, it starts this weekend at home because we haven't won there for a couple of seasons. It's an important game for us,'' Jacobs said.

The match will essentially be a basement dogfight, with both teams at the bottom of the ASB Premiership on three points. Manawatu's goal difference is better by only one.

One imagines that the term ''dig deep'' will feature in Otago's pre-match team talk. New captain Tim Horner and Otago's diminishing experienced core will have to generate an outstanding effort to bring back some reward.

''We have to get our heads in the right place, and reset our targets,'' Murray said.

''We are still capable of gaining a win.''

Footballsouth youth coach Tony Martin also would like a flying start in his team's first match of the season, also in Palmerston North.

''We have a talented squad that has been training very hard and is capable of bringing back points,'' he said.

Otago v Manawatu
Palmerston North, tomorrow, 2pm
Otago United:
Liam Little, Craig Ferguson, Benjudah Fitzpatrick, Matt Joy, Morgan Day, Seamus Ryder, Victor Da Costa, Ant Hancock, James Govan, Jackson Mitchell, Scott Gannon, Sam Mepham, Thomas Connor, Tim Horner (captain), Geordie Mansford, Aaron Burgess, Morgan Day.

Manawatu: Matt Borren, Liam Higgins, Wade Randle, Kade Schrijvers, Josh Chettleburgh, Nathan Cooksley, Seule Soromon, Adam Cowan (captain), Tom Mosquera, Tyson Brandt, Billy Scott, Jordan Martens, Dale Higham, Ben Wilkes, Grant Robson, Lewis Cumber.

Footballsouth Youth: Zayn Officer, Matt Mitchell, Geordie Mansford (captain), Will McIntyre, Cam Attwood, Tom Houghton, Jackson Mitchell, Finn Moore, Jack Kirkwood, Matt Webb, Ross Howard, Tom Merrilees, Matt Kelly, Nikki Meglinski, Anthony Mellon, Tyrell Barringer-Tairi.

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