NEAR-PERFECT RECORD SETS CORMORANTS IN GOOD STEAD
On the whole, things are going well. The Cormorants might have let their perfect record slip, but they remain three points ahead of second, six of third and nine of fourth. That said, this can't be chalked up as a successful qualifying run just yet. Nepharim victories against Abanhfleft, Eshan and Nordskania were all by a single goal - and all at home. Even so - there have been no serious slips, and Shale is right to say that his side is in a strong spot.
Broadly speaking, weak sides were beaten with a security-first approach, and despite occasionally wayward finishing, the Cormorants got the job done all but once. It's been a chance for less established players to try and bolt into the squad. Hawke, Fletcher and Tarashaj have taken their chances, but the jury remains out on the mercurial Leona Rafford - scored a belated breakthrough against Averyickan City and yet was sent off in the 71st minute against a typically resilient Russ Reucassel side.
That would be Acronius - earmarked early on as an initial banana skin, with controversial manager Russ Reucassel, a renowned Premiership firefighter, eager to show what he could do against his home club. As expected, his side defended rock-solidly, threatened mostly from set pieces and ended up kicking their way to victory in time-honoured fashion. A scoreless draw isn't the best of results for Nephara - but it'll do, away from home. It would be churlish to complain about a single away draw after eight consecutive victories.
Of the performers, this has been an exceptionally good cycle for many of the veterans of the World Cup as they enter the prime of their careers. Tanith Rainsford has been imperious in the heart of midfield, while Adnan Szalai on the right wing has shouldered the responsibility of being the team's most creative player, the go-to guy to just 'make something happen'. And, thankfully, Penumbra Amokachi up front has blazed back into form, and her absence through injury against Acronius was sorely-felt by the Cormorants.
Meanwhile, a couple of more recent bolters into the side have failed to convince. Specifically, Apostolos Tsattalios was unconvincing against Nordskania and particularly abject against Abanhfleft, failing to make a save and conceding four goals. It was Gideon Fletcher between the posts against Acronius, and in his four matches (admittedly against weak sides) he is yet to concede a goal. By now, with his safe gloves, uncomplicated distribution and quick reflexes, the Treason goalkeeper is the odds-on favourite to establish himself in a starting position. While Tsattalios may be the more 'modern' option, the more traditional Fletcher is more in Ballard's mould, the stopper he belatedly replaced at club level - he does the basics exceptionally well.
It has to be said that things up front haven't been entirely convincing, either - if one was to nitpick, at any rate. Penumbra Amokachi has been beyond reproach, but Dragan Stavanger and Chrysanthe Scafidis have struggled to partner her and Claudia Cautcher's beginning, worryingly, to struggle once more with niggling injuries. Young gun Estrella Hawke is likely to have the chance to establish herself in their stead. Konrad Gosforth has perhaps not seized his chances as well as might have been hoped, either, while the firebrand Tarashaj has excelled given half a chance.
Reinhard Shale, it has to be said, is doing a very good job. Not spectacular, but he's definitely getting the Cormorants to do what they should, and has proven he's willing to shift people around to get a result, and that he knows when to blood new talent. The defence is (almost always) doing its job tidily, and the team's managing games excellently. The one concern - with regards to team selection, does he know when to fold? When to run? Time is running out to harden replacements in the weak areas in time for the World Cup - but at least we can now acknowledge the strong likelihood of qualification.
And, if you're still not confident, reassure yourself that it could always be worse. Just when it seemed as though Brenecia had pulled itself languishes in fourth place and is wracked by a match-fixing scandal. You have to laugh, don't you?