After quite possibly the longest offseason in history (seven months, yes SEVEN months), the Hyundai A-League is back and BPF co-editor Neil Sherwin looks ahead to what promises to be an exciting campaign.
There are a lot of itchy feet in the Australian football community now having gone more than half a year without competitive domestic action. However the A-League is set to return better than ever, backed by a new ‘We Are Football’ campaign designed to make a statement in a country where a number of codes are battling for a market share.
Here is a look at each side ahead of the 2011/12 season:
The South Australians are almost unrecognisable from the 2010/11 season but look set to challenge for top honours thanks to some excellent signings. Last year’s Golden Boot winner Serio Van Dijk has been retained and he will be ably assisted up front by Bruce Djite who knew where the net was while at Gold Coast United.
Australian international Jon McKain will skipper the club after a spell in Saudi Arabia with Al Nassar, while fellow Socceroo Dario Vidosic has penned a three year deal with the club and will be a big influence in the middle of the park alongside Zenon Caravella and Evgeniy Levchenko.
Key Player: Sergio van Dijk
If Adelaide are to become a top side then they will need to score plenty and the burden for that will be carried by Van Dijk who has found the net regularly since he came to Australia in 2008.
Last year was all about the Roar’s free flowing football, and they rightly conquered all before them to win the ‘toilet seat’. However with the high of success comes the low of losing some of the players who contributed so greatly to the cause. Club captain Matt McKay has left for Glasgow Rangers in Scotland, while Kosta Barbarouses now plays in Russia and Jean Carlos Solorzano has joined Victory.
However they still possess a lot of quality through the spine of the team with Michael Theoklitos, Matt, Erik Paartalu and Thomas Broich, though the squad is very light up front. With Ange Postecoglu at the helm you can be sure that they will continue to be well organised and also feature in finals football.
Key Player: Thomas Broich
German Broich was an assist machine last season and his role in midfield will be even more important with the loss of Matt McKay. Extremely comfortable on the ball, the 30 year old has a great eye for a pass and has the ability to unlock any A-League defence.
Central Coast Mariners
Last year’s losing Grand Finalists will again be there or thereabouts given the strength of the squad at Graham Arnold’s disposure. New signings in the offseason include the creative Adrian Pellegrino from Perth Glory and goalkeeper Justin Pasfield who played last year with the now defunct North Queensland Fury. Pasfield will have to wrestle the starting spot away from teenager Matt Ryan who was superb when thrown in at the deep end twelve months ago.
Up front, Matt Simon will lead the line with a supporting cast of Adam Kwasnik, Michael Baird and youngster Bernie Ibini-Isei, while the defensive and midfield areas remain relatively unchanged from 2010/11. Mariners fans will be hoping their side can go one better this time round after the heartbreak of the defeat to the Roar back in March.
Key Player: Matt Simon
Despite not being the most popular of A-League players, there is no denying Simon’s ability in front of goal and he scored 11 goals for the Mariners last year last year. His form will be crucial if Central Coast are to again be one of the league’s top sides.
Gold Coast United
Many cynics are predicting that this could be Gold Coast’s last year in the A-League given their struggle with attendances, and looking at their squad it’s hard to see reason for people on the Sunshine Coast to get excited. Losing stars like Jason Culina and Shane Smeltz are massive blows and neither have been adequately replaced.
They have signed to Dutchmen in the form of centre half Paul Beekmans from SC Cambuur and Peter Jungschläger from De Graafschap. It isn’t all doom and gloom for United and there are still some exciting players to look out for. Michael Thwaite remains an excellent defender, while Armand Traore is full of energy on the left hand side, but ultimately it is a thin squad lacking quality and experience.
Key Player: Michael Thwaite
Given the standard of the current Gold Coast squad, it was a no brainer to pick Thwaite as their Key Player heading into the season. The centre half has six caps for his country and was a rock for United last year as they finished 4th, though things may be a bit more difficult this time around.
The 2010/11 season was a solid first one for Melbourne Heart in the A-League as they established themselves well and also became part of what will hopefully be a long standing rivalry with Victory. Some extra spice and been thrown in recently with Mate Dugandžić becoming the first player to make a direct switch between the clubs and he will now wear the red and white of Heart.
One of the best signings this offseason is David Williams, the exciting forward who tore defences to shred while at the Fury for the past two seasons. The 23 year old is full of energy and will add plenty to an attack that also includes Brazilian Fred who previously had a spell at Victory.
Key Player: David Williams
Arguably one of the most exciting players in the league on his day, Williams will add pace to the a Heart attack that often looked sluggish last season with the aging bodies of Gerald Sibon and John Aloisi.
The hype machine is in overdrive with Victory’s acquisition of Harry Kewell. The Aussie Golden Boy is returning home and has given a massive boost to the league. Kewell aside, Victory will once again be a very solid outfit. The fitness of Carlos Hernandez is important, while the aging strike duo of Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson will need to be firing on all cylinders up front. The loan signing of Jean Carlos Solorzano will help take some of the weight off their shoulders though, and the Costa Rican has A-League pedigree having scored 12 goals for Brisbane Roar last season.
Exciting winger Marco Rojas is a great recruit from Wellington Phoenix, though there are question marks over new first choice goalkeeper Tando Velaphi who was more than a bit suspect at Perth Glory for the last few years. However if Kewell can stay fit then Victory will be challenging for the top honours come the end of the season.
Key Player: Tando Velaphi
Having been jeered by his own supporters in Perth last season, the keeper has headed east for a new challenge. Victory may be potent up front but if they are leaking goals at the other end then their title chances will suffer, meaning the often erratic Velaphi will need to improve dramatically.
Despite the incredible financial backing of Eric Tinkler, the Jets have not really splashed the cash in terms of players. Their one big signing, Socceroo Jason Culina, has now been ruled out for the entire season with a knee injury. The former PSV Eindhoven man needs osteotomy surgery having pulled up with soreness following a previous operation.
Other signings in the offseason include Chris Payne who impressed at North Queensland Fury and South Korean international Bjun Sung-Hwan who spent two years at Sydney FC. There is little strength in depth though and it’s highly unlikely that they will challenge for a finals spot, especially now that they’ve lost Culina.
Key Player: Nikolai Topor-Stanley
The centre half put in a good shift last season and will need to carry that form into the new campaign. The 26 year old is seen a strong leader at the club and is the vice-captain behind skipper Kasey Wehrman.
After the spectacular failure that was the Robbie Fowler signing last season, it will be a new look Perth Glory that takes the field against Adelaide United on October 9. The club has recruited very well in the offseason, with New Zealand international Shane Smeltz and former Manchester United and Celtic midfielder Liam Miller the pick of the bunch.
Another important signing is goalkeeper Danny Vukovic who will be a much more reliable presence between the sticks than his predecessor Tando Velaphi. Young guns Adam Taggart, Josh Risdon and Jesse Makarounas will be looking for game time throughout the season, while recent loanee Andrezinho has added some Brazilian flair to the squad. Attendances at NIB Stadium were poor in the second half of last season meaning an big improvement on the club’s 10th place finish is essential.
Key Player: Liam Miller
Glory supporters have been crying out for a creative influence in the middle of the park and Miller will certainly provide that. The Irishman’s form will contribute a lot to the success of fellow new boy Shane Smeltz.
While Victory spent months trying to tie up Harry Kewell, Sydney were tailing their own superstar and have made a fantastic signing in Brett Emerton. At 32 Emerton still has the ability to play at the top level in the English Premier League but has chosen to head home and offer a huge boost for the game Down Under.
Nicky Carle’s first season at Sydney was underwhelming to say the least but the former Crystal Palace man has the talent to provide a creative spark when fit and hungry. Slovakian international Karol Kisel has rejoined the club after a year with Slavia Prague, while Dutchman Pascal Bosschaart has been brought in to shore up the backline. Youngster Terry Antonis is one to watch having been coveted by a number of European clubs recently.
Key Player: Brett Emerton
As well as being a household name, Emerton is a great player and would be a huge asset to any A-League side. It will be interesting to see which position he plays in for Sydney and it will be important for the club to maximise his abilities.
The Nix will struggle this year, even with the likes of Tim Brown, Paul Ifill and Lucas Pantelis in their ranks. Spanish midfielder Dani Sanchez has signed a one year deal with the club while 37 year old veteran Tony Warner will fight with New Zealand international Mark Paston for the number one shirt. Nick Ward has re-signed to provide some creative spark but injuries to Pantelis (knee) and Mirjan Pavlovic (broken arm) have disrupted the preseason.
A combination of a great coach in Ricki Herbert and a good home record should see them win a few games but ultimately the squad simply isn’t strong enough and they are strong wooden spoon contenders this season. The club has come under new ownership in recent weeks meaning their future is guaranteed and off field stability will have to suffice for this year.
Key Player: Tim Brown
A goalscoring midfielder, Brown has been a mainstay in the Phoenix side for a number of seasons now and will need to be at the top of his game playing in an average side.
How it all works:
For the 2011/12 season each side will play 27 games, hosting 13, travelling for 13 and playing one in a regional location. The games will be played over a period of 25 weeks.
The top-six-ranked teams at the end of the regular season will take part in the finals, where the top two ranked teams in the regular season compete over two legs (with ties decided by the away goals rule, including extra time). The winner progresses straight to the Grand Final and will also host the showpiece event.
On the same weekend, the third and sixth placed teams play against each other; as do those who placed fourth and fith on the ladder. The winner of each of these matches plays against each other, the winner of which goes ahead to play in a Preliminary Final against the loser of the two-legged match between the top two teams. The winner of this match progresses to the Grand Final which will take place at the end of April next year.
The first round of action gets underway on Saturday, October 8.