With the Welsh Premier League poised to split into two sections for its culmination, title holders The New Saints FC head into the second phase enjoying a familiar view at the top of the table.
The seven-time champions are not taking anything for granted as the top and bottom six teams prepare to separate, however, and director of football Craig Harrison is particularly wary of the threat posed by second-placed AUK Broughton FC. "They have strength in depth and they have added to their squad in the January transfer window," explained Harrison, whose side boast a five-point lead. "I fully expected them to be challenging at the top of the table."
Further down the standings, Newtown FC are a surprise inclusion in the top six, but their elevated status is no fluke according to Harrison. "Newtown have surprised a few people but have a solid group of players and fantastic team spirit," he said. "They have taken points off top sides, including ourselves, and the table doesn't lie. They are in the top six on merit and they could surprise a few more sides before the end of the season.
"[Third-placed] Carmarthen Town are another side with a strong squad. Whatever game plan their manager wants them to implement, they implement it well." Despite acknowledging the quality of New Saints' rivals, though, Harrison is confident that his side have the advantage, and that they can build on their current position.
"Our aim for the remainder of the season is to continue playing our attacking game and to go out and win our remaining fixtures. Our home form will be key; our last home league defeat was in November 2012. We have a squad of players who know what it takes to win the league title, and this could give us an edge."
Meanwhile, a separate battle for supremacy has opened up at the top of the league's scoring charts, with just three goals separating no fewer than nine players. Marc Lloyd-Williams is the Welsh Premier League's all-time record goalscorer, with 319 goals from 468 top-flight appearances between 1992 and 2011, and is well placed to offer an insight. "This year, it's starting to get really exciting," he said.
"There is no doubt that the league is getting a lot more competitive, with managers employing different tactics away from the traditional 4-4-2. From a striker's point of view, I feel that the race for the league's golden boot will be more interesting than the race for the title."
Midfielder Chris Venables of Aberystwyth Town FC and Mark Connolly of Bala Town FC currently top the chart with 12 goals apiece, but Lloyd-Williams expects some familiar names to emerge before the end of the season.
"It's great to see so many players in the race. From a personal point of view, a goalscorer doesn't lose his prowess in front of goal for long. I therefore expect Greg Draper and Michael Wilde [New Saints], and Les Davies [Bangor City FC] to be up there at the end of April as their teams play attacking football, as well as Rhys Griffiths [Port Talbot Town FC]."
The second phase of the Welsh Premier League season kicks off on 8 February, with the remaining UEFA Europa League place being decided by an end of season play-off.
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