Dragons fight complacency against Waikato

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 02/02/2013

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Keith Braithwaite's biggest task tomorrow could be keeping his Canterbury United charges' minds off next week's must-win match.

The Dragons returned to form after three ASB premiership defeats with a 4-1 derby victory at Otago United last weekend.

They should easily account for bottom team Waikato FC at English Park tomorrow and consolidate their top-four place.

That would mean a high-stakes visit to Napier to meet third-placed Hawke's Bay United in the next round.

Canterbury are now entering the most important phase of their season. They need three more wins, against Waikato, Hawke's Bay and the struggling Youngheart Manawatu to clinch a playoffs berth.

They can't afford to stumble on the way and then have to rely on picking up points in their final match against champions Waitakere United.

Coach Braithwaite's bunch are six points ahead of fifth-placed Team Wellington, who have a match in hand - albeit against Oceania champions Auckland City.

So Canterbury should qualify for the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. But will that constitute a successful season? There's no doubt Braithwaite's passion for success still burns, but do his players have the same drive? They certainly did not help their cause by returning from the Christmas break in less than tip-top condition.

But a more attacking mindset paid dividends against Otago, with Ken Yamamoto scoring twice in his first start of the season.

And do the Canterbury United board and Mainland Football administration have the resolve to strengthen the squad next season as league benchmarks Waitakere and Auckland do each term?

Braithwaite and his coaching team cannot operate in isolation. Canterbury will struggle to win the ASB premiership and Otago United will continually be consigned to the bottom of the table until a strong South Island league is set up as a stepping stone to national league football.

It's vital to have a stronger structure because the national competition is forever destined to be a two- round 14-game format.

Canterbury's top players are, by and large, locally-born. But Aaron Clapham (United States) and Russell Kamo (Australia) had their skills honed offshore, and goalkeeper Adam Highfield benefited from a Finnish finishing school. The gap between the Mainland League and playing Waitakere or Auckland is as yawning as any earthquake-induced chasm.

Canterbury walloped Waikato 5-0 in the first round and should be too strong tomorrow. The Hamiltonians have conceded 14 goals in three games in 2013, but were unlucky to lose 1-0 to a late Team Wellington goal last week.

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Braithwaite will warn against any complacency in his camp, but if the Dragons do not vanquish a young Waikato lineup they do not deserve to be in the top four.

Captain Dan Terris is still out with a hamstring strain and midfielder Chris Murphy is unavailable. But Josh Smith returns after missing the Otago match and Cory Mitchell has been added to the squad.

Squads are:

Canterbury United: Adam Highfield, Danny Knight (gks), Louie Bush, Tom Schwarz, Julyan Collett, Nick Wortelboer, Cory Mitchell, Darren White, Aaron Clapham, Andy Pitman, Josh Smith, Ken Yamamoto, Andy Barton, Russell Kamo, Ash Wellbourn, Nathan Knox.

Waikato FC: Matt Upton, Jason Mann (gks), Jordan Shaw, Eder Franchini, Sam Jasper (c), Gurjeep Singh, Rory Turner, Mark Jones, Jack Hobson-McVeigh, Jesse Smith, Elliot Collier, Byron Paulus, Alexi Caroama Varella, Dave Parkinson, Raymond How, Hone Fowler.

Kickoff: 2pm tomorrow at ASB Football Park. Other round 11 matches: Today: Auckland City v Waitakere. Tomorrow: Otago v Hawke's Bay, Manawatu v Team Wellington.

- The Press

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