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Warriors v Panthers: Beale out; Ciraldo wields axe

With only two rounds remaining, this Friday night fixture between two teams still in top four contention should have a finals feel to it.

The Warriors and Panthers were among four top eight teams to surprisingly taste defeat in round 23 and losing to the Bulldogs and Knights respectively wasn't a good look at this late stage of the season.

The Warriors need one more win to be 100% assured of a finals invitation, while two wins might even be good enough for a top four finish (though it's unlikely).

Penrith are safely secure in the top eight and still in contention for a home final. But they will have to be a whole lot better than they have been recently to topple the Warriors and even better again in their final-round road clash with NRL titleholders Melbourne.

Key match-up: By their own high standards, halfbacks Shaun Johnson and Nathan Cleary didn't aim up for their respective sides last week. Both will be looking to make amends and their head to head clash is likely to have a big influence on the result.

Warriors v Panthers - Round 24

For the Warriors to win: They have the worst home record (5-5) of any team in the top eight, though their last appearance at home a fortnight ago ended in a win over Newcastle. Coach Stephen Kearney will be banking on his senior players to lead, especially if it's tight down the stretch.

For the Panthers to win: Cleary understands he has to take control and direct his team more than he usually does in the absence of injured halves partner James Maloney. But he has to raise the bar even further until Maloney returns because the Panthers can't afford Cleary to take a single moment off if they are going to win.

Warriors Stat Attack: Johnson leads the NRL in field goals with four successful one-pointers - two more than Cleary. Winger David Fusitu'a has scored 18 tries to be second behind leader Valentine Holmes (19). Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is the leader in kick return metres (1141).

Panthers Stat Attack: Most of the numbers pointed to a Panthers win last week but the Knights finished ahead where it counts - on the scoreboard. The Panthers had the majority of possession, missed less tackles, made less errors and conceded less penalties.

And another thing: Two games into his NRL coaching career and Cameron Ciraldo is no doubt aware of the pressure he's under to get the Panthers performing like a worthy premiership contender. Penrith have already cemented a top-eight spot but their finals prospects look decidedly slim based on recent form.

New Zealand Warriors v Penrith Panthers, Friday 6pm at Mt Smart Stadium

Using the app? See this week's team lists here

Warriors: Gerard Beale (hamstring injury) is out, with Peta Hiku to start in his place in the centres.  Mason Lino comes into the halves for Blake Green (calf), who is hopeful of returning next week against Canberra. Tohu Harris has been brought into the run-on side in the final team list with Isaiah Papali'i dropping to the bench. Beale and Karl Lawton were the two players who were dropped 24 hours out from kick-off. Anthony Gelling and Chris Satae dropped out on game day with Leivaha Pulu taking the final bench spot.

Panthers: Tyrone May's relegation to the bench will see him act as back-up dummy-half to Wayde Egan while Trent Merrin's move to the starting side could signal more minutes for the middle forward – he has averaged under 40 for the past month. Adam Keighran and Liam Martin were the two players dropped from the squad 24 hours before game time. Sione Katoa and Kaide Ellis dropped out on game day.

Head-to-head: Played 40; Panthers 23 wins, Warriors 16 wins, 1 draw
Previous result: Panthers won 36-4 in round 17
Points per game: Warriors 18.9; Panthers 21.8
Points conceded per game: Warriors 18.9; Panthers 18.6
Televised: Live on Fox League

Petero Civoniceva's prediction: Last week's home loss was embarrasing for Penrith and I expect them to hit back hard. Great news with Viliame Kikau getting the all clear to travel to New Zealand and he'll have a big role to play against the huge Warriors pack. Both sides will be looking to make a statement ahead of the finals but I expect Penrith to prevail.

Tip: Panthers by 6.