The A league season gets under way this Thursday and we have two new teams taking the league to ten teams in total. The question will be was the league ready for the extra teams or have they simply diluted the talent pool? Whatever the answer, it was important to have more games played in the A league, as the 8 team league meant that the season was over as soon as it started. Having two more teams enter next year is likely to be far more detrimental than the two this year. Especially following the interest that is expected to be generated by the World Cup, the FFA cannot afford a substandard national competition. Perth Glory have shown how having poor marketing and a poor team after the World Cup means you miss out on so much and it takes a couple of years to recover. So how will the teams in the coming season fare. Some have gone for low key pre-season games while others have played plenty, time will tell which has paid dividends.
My predictions are as follows:
Sydney FC have more or less slipped under the radar, they have been unbeaten in pre-season and new coach Vitezslav Lavicka has gone about his business quietly and assuredly. This is probably a great appointment following all the back- stabbing there last year, as the new man comes in with no allegiances to local politics and can stamp his mark on the team. The highest profile signing is Byun Sung-Hwan a defender from Korea, which implies an emphasis on defence. It is worth noting that in 12 pre-season games they only conceded 1 goal and scored 25. If Lavicka can keep his ambitious back room staff under control and avoid the fate of Julius Caesar, I believe Sydney will top the league.
As for who will come second I am torn between two teams, new boys Gold Coast United or Melbourne Victory. I will plump for Gold Coast, although I worry that outspoken coach Miron Bleiberg will be the one to derail their campaign. They have recruited well and have a squad that will be the envy of many, but Bleiberg tends to antagonise opposition players and coaches and this could back fire on the team. They too have been undefeated in pre-season with the best victory being a 2-1 win over EPL side Fulham. Jason Culina is their star signing, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure. His return to the A league could see him miss out on a World Cup berth unless he shows that he is a class above his team mates and stands out on a week by week basis.
Despite being torn between the Victory and the Gold Coast for second, I believe the Perth Glory will come third. Dave Mitchell has recruited well although there are areas of concern. On paper with everyone fit it is a great squad and if he finishes out of the top five it could well be the end of his coaching career in Australia, so he has a lot riding on this season. Mitchell favours a 4-4-2 formation yet the question is does the squad have four definite defenders? Left back is an area of concern, Scott Neville will be the first choice right back, but he will need to be managed well to get the best out of him over a prolonged season. Up front there is promise, but these front men are going to need to be serviced properly. In pre-season this was a concern. Sikora needs to slow his runs to the standard of the players around him to be effective, as they will not be able to think at his speed. A good start essential, but may not come following a very low profile pre-season.
Melbourne Victory are my tip for fourth place. It was good news for the club to sign Costa Rican Carlos Hernandez for three years and also the services of Kevin Muscat for another season, but there are areas of concern. Glen Moss had a great Confederations Cup for New Zealand but he does not command his box the way Michael Theoklitos did, and they will miss the latter’s presence in goal. Up front is another area of concern. Ernie Merrick has blended youth and age in midfield well and the Thompson and Allsopp partnership has been very successful for the Victory, but last year the shine looked to have gone from Archie Thompson. If he does not manage to fire then the Victory will not achieve the standards they have in the past.
Adelaide United are always contenders, and as in the old NSL have every right to claim to be the hotbed of Australian football. The concern will be what is happening off the pitch with the FFA running the club until new owners are found. Credit where it is due the FFA have conceded they made mistakes running the Glory and will not make the same mistakes again, but it will be a distraction. Coach Aurelio Vidmar has signed Ghanaian international Lloyd Owusu from Cheltenham Town, and hopes he will have the impact that Eugene Dadi had at Perth for Adelaide. He was prolific at Brentford, but in 89 games since 2007 with 3 clubs he has scored 24 goals at an average of a goal every 3.7 games, well down on his average before 2007 which was a goal every 2.9 games, which would imply he is on the wane. Hopefully for Adelaide fans this is not the case. The talent to watch is Francesco Monterosso, who was being talked about two years ago as a young talent.
Frank Farina has done a great job with Brisbane Roar – or Queensland Roar as they were prior to last season – who played some wonderful football, but regrettably they have yet to make a grand final or win the league. I fear that this season could be the morning after the lord mayor’s ball for the Brisbane Roar. Is their defence strong enough, can Craig Moore keep them tight at the back? The loss of Massimo Murdocca will hurt them in the engine room of the midfield, having broken his leg in training. This will be a year of transition for the Roar with rebuilding for the next two seasons vital.
The Central Coast Mariners have always been competitive in the A league and in fact are the most consistent team in terms of their league placings. They too were unbeaten in their pre-season, and the Asia Champions league highlighted the need for change. Adam Kwasnik returns from the Phoenix and McKinna hopes to shore up the defence with English recruit Chris Doig. This season will not be their year as they rebuild and the shenanigans in the off season where people were trying to manoeuvre Graham Arnold into the coaching role and Lawrie McKinnna be moved upstairs cannot have been good for the club.
Newcastle Jets, again I fear off field issues will derail the Jets. Con Constantine, the owner, of the Jets is no doubt going to still be at odds with the FFA over their poaching of coach Gary van Egmond, and understandably so. If clubs cannot approach a manager without permission, then the games administrators should not either. The English FA always ask the clubs before appointing the national manager. Sadly this is a legacy of having people from ‘the game we don’t mention’ running football. Branko Culina’s appointment saddened me as it was a case of recycling what we have already seen, and when was he last successful? Surely we need to see A league clubs appointing up and coming talent from the state leagues or the coaching side will never move forward? The Jets have played the least pre-season games, and I fear that personalities will clash as there are some very outspoken personnel on board. In fact I am tipping 8th as I believe the talent they have will see them rise this high.
Wellington Phoenix had six of their team with coach Ricki Herbert at the Confederations Cup and they struggled. Paul Ifill is their most exciting signing a striker from Crystal Palace with good pedigree, but the concern is the supply-line to him. Diego signed from Adelaide along with Daniel may be the answer, but consistency will be the key. Leo Bertos, if he is the option will not be the answer. Chris Greenacre is another English important whose career in the UK looked to be on the wane, at 31 he is going to have to fire early or the pressure will mount. Tim Brown is a key in midfield and Sigmund at the back was the only Phoenix player to shine in South Africa, if he can build on that they will upset many teams but will not challenge for the title.
North Queensland Fury, sadly look like a team of A league cast-offs. Maybe they should have called themselves North Queensland castaways. I fear that this will be a very long and frustrating season for coach Ian Ferguson. The coup of signing Robbie Fowler is one over which the jury is out, and many wonder whether he will last until Christmas, which could cause a new set of problems. Talent is there with the likes of David Williams and Fred Agius who on his day is one of the most exciting players going around, but there are question marks over the players around them having enough experience to support them. Robbie Middleby is coming to the end a of a good career and one feels a lot rests on his aging shoulders along with those of Ufuk Talay. Players being given a chance to play regular first team football include James Robinson, Jason Spagnulo, Jeremy Brockie, Jacob Timpano, Chris Tadrosse and unless they step up it is going to be a very long season for the Fury.
As they say in the Olympics ‘may the games begin’ and may I be proved wrong!