After all the criticism the A-League has copped in years gone by, I only have one criticism of it these days. The off-season is too bloody long.
Of course, in the past couple of off-seasons that frustration has been lightened by some blood-pumping anticipation over box office arrivals. A year ago it was all about Kewell. This year it has been Del Piero, Heskey and Ono (with a little Ballack thrown in, even if that didn’t happen).
I am counting the hours until kick-off, and not just because of the star signings. I anticipate that in terms of football quality this will be the best season yet. And that won’t only be because of Del Piero and his fellow immigrants but more the fresh technical attitude that is sweeping through the competition.
Already last season most teams tried to play what I call real football. It will be even more so in the coming season, due in part to Football Federation Australia’s insistence on lifting the bar when it came to coaching accreditation. Some of the bumbling, uneducated boofheads who masqueraded as coaches in the early years of the league couldn’t get a gig as doormen today.
Thank you, FFA. And thank you, Han Berger. More of the same, please, especially in the area of youth development.
Some eyesores will be gone too. Like the depressing empty stands on the Gold Coast, or the coaching incompetence and chaos of last season at Melbourne Victory. Pity we can’t do much about the weather and shivering fans in Wellington.
There will be a new team, too, although the jury on what the Wanderers will offer is out until we actually see them play in those almost erotic red and black hoops. I sincerely hope they are well supported so some football nut with a big cigar and a fat wallet can buy them off FFA.
Here is what I expect, team by team:
John Kosmina, it appears, has been re-born if the team’s display against Bunyodkor the other week (until it had a man sent off) is any guide. It was the most dazzling display of attacking football I had ever seen from the Reds. No more just getting stuck in and fighting wars. It was football of a kind that city has long been waiting to be proud of and deserved. If it persists, Adelaide will threaten for the title.
The admired methodology of the champion will persist under a new head coach. The question is what are the elements the departing Ange Postecoglou took with him and what are the new ones his successor, Rado Vidosic, brings? Ben Halloran is an exciting signing though I will miss the languid elegance of Mohamed Adnan. But the technical culture of the last two seasons is now so embedded at Roar that, surely, it will be among the teams to beat again.
Central Coast Mariners
This should be a season belonging to Tom Rogic, the most exciting of the younger generation in the last campaign. It should be enough to numb the pain of Mustafa Amini’s departure to Dortmund. And – one can only dream – it could be enough to get Rogic a shirt in a Holger Osieck squad, which wouldn’t be before its time. If Graham Arnold uses Mile Sterjovski in his best position, he could be a big gain for the Mariners. But it’s a solid squad with no weak points and which will threaten for the big prize again.
Problem is we just don’t know what John Aloisi is capable of in his first season as head coach. Heart has lost some serious young talent in Babalj, Good and Hamill which might be telling (why an exciting young prospect like Brendan Hamill should opt to go to Korea at his age is beyond me). But Heart’s youth policy has been good so there may well be replacements. Besides, if Fred can stay clear of injuries and fire anywhere like he did for Victory years ago, Heart could go far, especially if it plays the kind of modern football John van ‘t Schip built into the club culture.
I can’t go past Melbourne Victory as the favourite the win the A-League title this coming season. The club has a proven champion coach, espousing the most modern methods of playing. The squad transformation has been well planned and the playing group is balanced. Those who have left, with perhaps the exception of Fabio, probably belonged to a past era. Those who arrived are quality, in particular Milligan, Traore and the master match-winner, Marcos Flores.
Coach Gary van Egmond, after spending last season trying to make good with a squad he inherited at short notice, starts afresh with his own group, having signed no less than 11 new players - the highest number of any club except the Wanderers. He can have no complaints if things don’t go according to his plan. We know his philosophy is modern and based on ball possession, high pressing and movement. He will not play on the break. Emile Heskey will draw crowds but so should the Van Egmond brand of playing. Let’s see how it works out, but the Jets are likely to finish higher than last season’s seventh.
There has been little transfer movement at Glory, implying that boss Ian Ferguson was content with having finished third and getting a grand final place last season. The danger of this is that teams that finished lower, like Victory, Sydney FC, Adelaide and Newcastle may have made sufficient improvements to surpass it in the new campaign. If I were Glory I would watch my back. In Thwaite, Jamieson and Ward Perth has added some experience but, especially with the loss of Sterjovski, I don’t see too many proven match-winners in its squad. It may be a struggle to attain again the heights of last season.
Just as new coach Ian Crook was quietly going about his studious re-building, Sydney FC was suddenly lifted back above the radar with the arrival of Alessandro Del Piero. The spotlight is back on. The good side of this is that if ADP performs as well as his reputation suggests, and it positively impacts on his team-mates, the effect can be as lethal technically as it will be commercially. The down side is that the ADP signing will only up the expectation and the pressure. Sydney FC, even without Del Piero, is not a club for which anything other than total success comes easily. Crook speaks admirable words about the kind of football he espouses. Now for the results that need to come with it. Suffice to say that the pressure will not just be on Del Piero to deliver. It will be on Ian Crook even more.
The Kiwis again defied all by finishing fourth last season and who can dare suggest they will be less successful in this campaign. Paul Ifill - a wonderful and unique match-winner whom most other clubs in the league would love to have - is still in Wellington. Phoenix relies on him probably more than it knows. If he performs and if the coach Ricky Herbert maintains his great capacity to inspire a bunch of self-perceived underdogs, something similar can happen again. Phoenix will not win anything. But it will, again, ruin the hopes of some who think they can.
Western Sydney Wanderers
An eclectic mixture of unseen youth, experience and exotic foreign flesh, steered by a coach in his first season as a head man, the Wanderers could be and do anything. Who knows? From what we heard while he was assistant to Lavicka at Sydney FC, Tony Popovic is a gifted coach and tactician, well respected by the players. I am hoping he will attempt to excite as well as win, for that is what the club’s virgin fans will be seeking. Predictions are folly here. Pre-season friendlies tell us little. It will be an astonishing story if Wanderers finish anywhere near the top four. But don’t expect them to be easy beats either.
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