The Reserve Keeper: A-League Preview Part 1

Guest blogger, The Reserve Keeper, previews the upcoming A-League season. Enjoy!

With the final siren signalling the end of the AFL and NRL seasons in the past two weeks, it’s time to look ahead to the start of A-League Season 2013/2014. With what is the longest off season in professional soccer (from here on in, we’ll call it football) it gives the marketing gurus at FFA’s HQ plenty of time to conceive ideas on how to get more folk of the previously mentioned codes keen to come along. One of their plans: Strap four wheels on some advertisements and chuck blockies on AFL grand final day. 

While cheeky advertising, the Melbourne Derby – Victory vs Heart – that it refers to is certainly worth a look. In fact, the whole season is worth a look. Last year the A-League ‘came of age’ with some big name signings such as Italian national treasure Alessandro Del Piero to Sydney FC and English journeyman Emile Heskey to Newcastle Jets. This year sees the return of a long list of fringe Socceroos from successful or otherwise stints in overseas leagues. With this season leading into a World Cup year you can bet a motza that these lads will be giving it everything to be noticed and chosen to get on the plane to Brazil. Let’s assess each team and see how they might fair in 2013/2014.

Wellington Phoenix

After getting off to a great start in 2012/2013, the Phoenix went to flames and didn’t respawn like that one in Harry Potter did. Always competitive at home, rarely did they come back from the mainland with 3 points in their checked luggage. Old Melbourne Victory coach Ernie Merrick returns to the local coaching scene, but the results haven’t come back from the lab as to if he will transform this habitual underachiever to a serious contender.

Only Isaka Cernak went out on a transfer, many others including 50-gamer Tony Lochead and regular Alex Smith were simply shown the door. They have picked up a few replacements from local teams, as well as Kenny Cunningham (not the Irishman who played everywhere, the Costa Rican who played nowhere), pulled keeper Lewis Italiano out of the Victorian Premier League, but their biggest import would be ex-Victory favourite Carlos Hernandez. Not known to be the most athletic looking bloke in football, he probably heard their home ground is known as The Cake Tin and needed no more convincing. With the ball at his feet, he can hit a ball as sweet as candy, especially free kicks. Just getting him to chase it is the issue.

When Wellington have their act together they look dangerous, especially with Jeremy Brockie, Paul Ifill, Huysegems and the fresh-faced Tyler Boyd to choose from up front. Getting those players decent service will be the key issue, although some of their backline are known to poke a few in themselves. Despite the scoring potential, getting the chance against some of the better teams will be a tough task.

Prediction: 10th (last)

Newcastle Jets

You could describe last season for the Jets as a building year. The usual starting lineup had an average age of something like 22, and it showed in their 8th place finish. With a host of young Socceroos such as Mark Birighitti in the sticks, Craig Goodwin, Josh Brillante, Mitch Cooper and James Virgilli playing alongside some experienced A-League-ers, one would think the old ‘youth and experience’ mix couldn’t be better. The problem was, the team didn’t look like they were playing the same game at times, and when they were, it was usually ‘kick it to Heskey’.

Recruiting has been poor from the Jets this year. After freeing up a few minor spots, they have brought in Dutchman Kew Jaliens, fringe Socceroo Nathan Burns and Joey Gibbs came across from the Wanderers. While there aren’t any major weaknesses amongst their squad, it appears as though it will be another season hoping the young boys will be the shining light. ‘Kick it to Heskey’ is on hold for now as he is out for a good few weeks with injury, so hopefully Van Egmond has another gameplan. Unless his brigade of U/23’s step up to the plate, more so with the prospect of going to Brazil, it may be a year of disappointment.

Prediction: 9th

Sydney FC

The sky blues made loud noises last year with the signing of Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero – who is back for his second season. No doubt him and everyone at so-called Bling FC will be wanting to improve on last season’s 7th place finish.

The short term signing of Lucas Neil was exactly as described as he has moved on. Both Griffiths boys have departed overseas, as has Fabio and a few others down to State League teams. Snapping up Richard Garcia from Heart should put an extra cylinder in their engine room and their backline will welcome Matt Jurman (Roar) and Pedj Bojic (Mariners). Coming in from abroad are Aussies Corey Gameiro, Marc Warren and Serbian Nikola Petkovic.

Once again, it will be ADP doing most of the damage. Whether it is setting up a play, goals from a dead ball, or being given too much space and smacks one top corner for fun he will be good to watch. With a better backline they should leak less goals, although its still essentially two state league keepers on their books. They have some young guys that can bang in a goal or two, but rarely do they get more than a few games in a row to prove it. Even with a marginally better squad than last year, expect more of the same.

Prediction: 8th

Perth Glory

After a very slow start, the Glory finished in 6th place last year mainly down to the appointment of Allistar Edwards as coach bringing them home strong. Defensively they were sound enough, but with star striker Shane Smelt out for large parts of the year with injury, up front was a little less Bourbon and a little more Baileys.

There was quite a turnover in the off-season – mainly shedding players who didn’t really feature last season – but also losing some key players such as Billy Mehmet, Dean ‘The Heff’ Heffernan and Liam Miller. The new shirts being printed feature an influx of younger blood from their own youth system, as well as Cernak from Wellington, Ryan Edwards and Jamie McLaren from UK clubs and Brazilian Sidnei Scoila Moraes.

How they will fair this year will depend much on the system Edwards has them playing. The main structure of the squad won’t be too dissimilar to last year but expect some better football. Having said that, there are a lot of inexperienced players behind the core group, so asking big things from them may be too much.

Prediction: 7th

Melbourne Heart

“There’s only one team in Melbourne” is the catch-cry from the blue half during a Melbourne derby. It might be time to put this one to bed, as Heart have probably done the best recruiting of all the teams this year. Last year’s poor 9th place should not be repeated with the stocks they have now. In Aloisi’s second season in charge, he will be hoping for less ‘tell us about that penalty again’ and more results on the pitch.

Heart has yet again said goodbye to Eli Babalj, farewell to Josip Tadic and Simon Colosimo (both overseas), Richard Garcia is an unfortunate departure to Sydney FC, Clint Bolton moved into a management role at the club and a few others were let go. Some of the new names are more familiar than others, with too many to all go into individually. Harry Kewell needs no more fanfare but a great signing and Patrick Kisnorbo has worn the green and gold more than a few times while based in the UK. Mifsud is the marquee player a current international striker with Malta. Engelaar is highly rated, but is out for a while after a broken leg in pre-season. It is hard to say whether the unluckiest keeper in the league, the David ‘Calamity’ James of the A-League – Tando Velaphi – will start ahead of Redmayne. Maybe if Perth’s keeper Vukovic promises not to beat him from a goal-kick again he will get a run.

The bottom line is that Heart have the names on paper, but can they get it together as a team unit? They will not be on top of the pile at the end of the season, but expect them to upset a few teams along the way. They should see finals football, but consistency will determine their level of success.

Prediction: 6th

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Ross Slater

Blogging about the important things - AFL and cricket

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