One of the longest offseasons in world football is finally over and preparations are just about complete Down Under ahead of the A-League’s eleventh campaign.
Melbourne Victory blew everyone away last time out as they finished top of the regular season standings, before destroying Sydney FC 3-0 in the Grand Final at a packed out AAMI Park.
It wouldn’t be right if everything went smoothly in the A-League though, with Perth Glory’s accountants forgetting to carry a few ones, resulting in the club being booted out of the finals. Meanwhile, ownership issues have dogged both Newcastle Jets and Brisbane Roar, with the former now being run by Football Federation Australia (FFA).
The competition may be lacking a few big name overseas acquisitions but crowds remain on the up as football continues to grow across the country. Here’s a look at how all ten teams are shaping up for the big kick off.
There was a changing of the guard in South Australia during the offseason as colourful and lovable coach Josep Gombau parted ways with Adelaide United, to be replaced by fellow Spaniard Guillermo Amor. The former Barcelona star had been working with the club already and should continue the entertaining passing style that has become Adelaide’s forte in recent years.
Exciting youngster Awer Mabil also departed recently, joining FC Midtjylland in Denmark, but former Melbourne Heart striker Eli Babalj has come in on a season-long loan from AZ Alkmaar and he should be a potent weapon at the top end of the attack.
Midfielder James Jeggo has been linked to a move to Europe but for now he will form part of a settled unit that includes one of the A-League’s best players, Argentine Marcelo Carrusca, as well as Spanish duo Cirio and Isaias.
Once the benchmark in terms of style and substance, the Roar are, it’s fair to say, a bit of a shambles. The Bakrie Group, who currently own the club, have failed to pay the wages of both players and staff. In response, around 7000 people have decided not to renew their membership for the 2015/16 amid repeated calls for the Barkie’s A-League licence to be revoked.
The squad itself could do with an injection of quality, with Miguel Angel Garcia Perez-Roldan (known as “Corona”) and Jamie Maclaren the two major additions. Maclaren was very underused by Perth Glory last season and scored goals when he did play so should link up well with the likes of Thomas Broich, Henrique and promising young gun Devante Clut.
The return to full fitness of goalkeeper Michael Theo is a big boost, but Luke Brattan will be severely missed, with the 25-year-old midfielder reportedly close to joining Premier League giants Manchester City.
Central Coast Mariners
The Mariners are a club that has a strong focus on community but it doesn’t have the resources to compete with the big boys for more than a season or two.
Irishman Roy O’Donovan will spearhead the attack, the former Cork City man has switched to the A-League after a spell in Singapore. O’Donovan, pacey winger Fabio Ferreira and exciting playmaker Anthony Caceres have the potential to unlock opposition defences.
The Mariners squad includes plenty of young players and it’s hard to see them challenging for top honours, though a spot in the finals would represent a successful season.
The City Football Group are slowly but surely shaping their franchise into a contender, having finished fifth in their first season since re-branding from Melbourne Heart.
Experienced internationals Josh Kennedy and Damien Duff have retired and returned home to Ireland respectively, and into squad come ex-Premier League men Thomas Sorensen and Aaron Hughes, as well Uruguayan Bruno Fornaroli.
The key man though will be Australian international Aaron Mooy who turned down the opportunity to move to Europe during the offseason, and he is a joy to watch when pulling the strings in midfield.
The country’s biggest club deservingly claimed top honours last season, and will be very hard to stop once again. Nathan Coe never convinced between the sticks though so he has been replaced by the solid Danny Vukovic from Perth Glory, while Socceroo Oliver Bozanic returns to the A-League after a spell in Europe with FC Luzern of Switzerland.
Crucially, top scorer Besart Berisha, assist machine Gui Finkler, and impressive Tunisian Fahid Ben Khalfallah have all been retained, while veteran Archie Thompson will play on for another season, though a recent injury means he will miss the first couple of months.
Kevin Muscat appears to have addressed the defensive frailties that cost Victory dearly when he took the coaching reins, and it will be worth keeping an eye on how they cope with the loss of former skipper Mark Milligan to the Middle East. However, the reigning champions will be again be backed by bumper home crowds and should be there or thereabouts come the business end of the campaign.
The club’s major ownership issues appear to be resolved, with Nathan Tinkler ousted by the FFA who have taken over with the view to finding a more long term solution.
The Jets’ new skipper is defender Nigel Boogaard who joins from Adelaide United, and he will be part of an important spin that includes returning goalkeeper Mark Birighitti, experienced international David Carney, and former Ajax, Feyenoord, Ferencvaros and 1860 Munich forward Leonardo Vitor Santiago.
Having seen their team finish bottom last season, Jets fans will be hoping that the fresh start coincides with a move up the ladder.
A season that promised so much ended in utter embarrassment for Perth Glory when they were found guilty of breaching the salary cap and demoted from third to seventh spot on the ladder, outside the finals places. An entire squad has departed over the past 18 months, including Irish international Andy Keogh who was at the centre of the cap fiasco due to additional payments allegedly received by his partner.
The problem for Glory this year is a lack of depth. Gyorgy Sandor, Diego Castro and Guyon Fernandez all join the club with good European pedigrees but the options behind them are limited if any pick up injuries. The back line remains solid though, with Ante Covic in goal and Antony Golec at left back likely to start alongside Josh Risdon, Michael Thwaite and Dino Djulbic.
A run to the last four of the FFA Cup has provided a good news story before the main kick off, and Glory will be hoping they can go one better than 2014 when they went down by a goal to nil against Adelaide United in the final.
Graham Arnold is one of the best about when it comes to building a strong A-League squad, and he will be looking to improve on last season’s second place finish and Grand Final loss to Melbourne Victory.
The club received a massive boost when Serbian Milos Dimitrijevic went back on his initial decision to return to Europe so he will again be a driving force in the middle of the park.
Another Serb, Milos Ninkovic adds further depth behind strikers Filip Holosko, Shane Smeltz and skipper Alex Brosque, while a solid quarter of youngsters in Riley Woodcock, Brandon O’Neill, Andrew Hoole and Zac Anderson have come in from other A-League clubs.
Wellington Phoenix surprised many by finishing fourth last season, and it will be an excellent achievement if they can repeat that feat.
The loss of top goal scorer Nathan Burns to for FC Tokyo in Japan will hit them hard, but midfield machine Roly Bonevacia has been retained and will pull the strings alongside Albert Riera and Michael McGlinchey.
Jeffrey Sarpong brings a wealth of Eredivisie experience to the A-League, having played for Ajax, NEC Nijmegen, Hercules and NAC Breda, as well as Real Sociedad in Spain.
Western Sydney Wanderers
The 2014/15 A-League season was simply unacceptable for Western Sydney Wanderers as they flirted with the wooden spoon before eventually finishing second from bottom. Consequently, a number of players left the club, including the likes of Ante Covic, Kerem Bulut, Nikita Rukavytsya, Iacopo La Rocca and Tomi Juric.
Tony Popovic has freshened up his playing personnel, and league veterans Scott Jamieson, Dario Vidosic, Mitch Nichols Scott Neville, as well as Spanish trio Dimas, Andreu and Alberto, should all feature in the starting eleven.
Backed by a very passionate supporter group, the Wanderers will be aiming to rediscover the form that helped them win the Asian Champions League less than 12 months ago.
The 2015/16 A-League season gets underway on Thursday, 8 October 2015, when Western Sydney Wanderers host Brisbane Roar.