Can Newtown or Rhyl cause play-off upset?

Carmarthen Town and Bangor City head into tomorrow’s play-off semi-finals as strong favourites to advance to the final, but despite fading in recent weeks, can Rhyl or Newtown spring an end-of-season surprise? I also take a look at the recently announced official team of the season.

The end of season play-offs arrive this weekend with four teams chasing after the remaining European spot in Welsh football, and it is hard to see past Carmarthen and Bangor reaching this year’s final – a season after both sides were dumped out at the semi-final stage.

Carmarthen and Bangor both have home advantage – albeit at Port Talbot’s GenQuip Stadium in Carmarthen’s case – and the host clubs will certainly favour their chances.

With respect, it’s been a season of overachievement at Rhyl and Newtown. The Lilywhites have a modestly assembled squad but have enjoyed an excellent return season back in the Welsh Premier League. Survival would’ve undoubtedly been Greg Strong’s prime objective this year but to have his side still challenging for Europe at this late stage of the season is a considerable achievement.

Make no bones about it, Rhyl are one of the biggest clubs within the Welsh system. League champions as recent as 2009, the club will be looking to re-establish themselves as one of the top sides in the league over the next few seasons, though I fear this is a season too soon for Rhyl to return to European soil.

Despite a solid campaign, there can be no denying Rhyl’s form has slipped away quite dramatically from that shown earlier this season. Hard-fought successive victories over Port Talbot, Airbus and Carmarthen, which earned Strong the manager of the month for February, now seem a long time ago with the side winless in eight and coming off six straight league defeats. It appears that a gruelling return season in the top-flight has hit them hard. Rhyl’s decline in form has not been helped by the absence of Steve Lewis, a hot-headed but instrumental figure in attack, who the Belle Vue club have sorely missed. Suspension and injury have not seen Lewis feature for Rhyl since March and a late fitness test will determine whether he will make the side to face Carmarthen and much of their hopes will pin on his availability.

This weekend’s televised fixture between Bangor and Newtown is more evenly poised but I still expect another home win. The Citizens are at full-strength barring long-term absentees Jamie Brewerton and Jamie Petrie and, like Newtown, they will feel revitalised with a two-week break since the final day of Welsh Premier League fixtures.

Two successive seasons without European football which be something of a underachievement at Bangor City and although the club have (wisely) cut their cloth accordingly, the Citizens are still very much remain one of the league heavyweights, so much so that a sense of expectation and pressure from the Nantporth crowd could prove to be a difficult obstacle for a Bangor squad, who’ve had a season of transition. The absence of broken-leg victim, Jamie Petrie, who’s enjoyed a solid first season at the club, will be a loss in the final-third for Bangor but I still think they have enough to overcome what can be a well-drilled Newtown outfit.

Newtown, similar to Rhyl, have seen their form suffer late in the season. The Robin’s inconsistency suggests that their small squad have become jaded at the back-end of the season and the decision not to add to their three January arrivals during the transfer window could now perhaps a regrettable one. Zach Evans has filled in well since injury curtailed Sean Evans’ season but offensively, Newtown now have little depth-wise.

Yet in a season which seen both Newtown and Rhyl reach the play-offs via the top-six, who am I to rule either side out of a place in the final?

There were two glaring omissions from the official annual team of the season which was announced earlier this week.

Based on the collective votes of the twelve Welsh Premier League managers, the team of year was unveiled with champions TNS, unsurprisingly, leading the way with five players in the starting XI. The side was as follows: Paul Harrison (TNS); Declan Walker (BAN), Stuart Jones (ABR), Ian Kearney (AIR), Kai Edwards (TNS), Lewis Short (AIR); Sam Finley (TNS), Chris Venables (ABR), Chris Jones (TNS); Mike Wilde (TNS), Christian Doidge (CAR).

Though much of that team picks itself on merit, I was surprised to see the inclusion of Airbus UK’s Lewis Short. While not a snipe on his ability, injury ruled out the left-back for the duration of the second-half of the season and fellow Wingmaker Sam Hart proved to be a more than able deputy, and actually played more league games, so surely that would’ve made him a more fitting candidate?

I also found it strange why, given the current crop of quality midfielders currently playing in the league, why the team picks itself on a 5-3-2 formation – this is the only explanation I can give for why playmaker Tom Field, also from Airbus, missed out, and I personally would’ve opted for him ahead of TNS’ Chris Jones. Although Field did make it onto the reserve list – the complete omission of Aeron Edwards, who has performed magnificently in central midfield and at full-back this season for TNS is a complete surprise and is the biggest shock of all.

Finally, it’s good to see the Welsh Premier League engaging with fans, with supporters again being asked to name their team of the season – get selecting right here!

If anyone cares to see what my Welsh Premier team of the season is, I’ll tweet it ahead of tomorrow’s matches on @1matthewburgess. Feel free to send me yours and I’ll re-tweet them before kick-off.

Enjoy the play-offs and good luck if you’re involved.

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