Guest blogger, The Reserve Keeper, previews the A-League season. Enjoy!
Last season was one to forget for the reds. Despite the respectable 4th place finish, there were not enough churches in the city that could change the ill-will amongst board, coaches and players, not to mention the fans being far from impressed with a show of silence during one home game. There was a call for a change of culture, which was answered in the form of Spanish coach Josep Gombau. With ties to Spanish giant Barcelona FC, this has reportedly brought about more of a passing playing style and a feeling of reinvigoration at the club.
The loss of sometimes Socceroo Dario Vidosic to FC Sion Switzerland will leave a big hole going forward. There weren’t many attacks last year that he wasn’t a part of, nor many free kicks that he didn’t send goalward. Young Socceroo Tomi Juric is off to the Wanders and the two Iain’s have also departed – Ramsay to Heart and Fyfe to big oil country. It’s not all bad news though, with Socceroo left-back hopeful Michael Zullo in from the Netherlands on loan, Tarek Elrich in from the Wanders and two basically unknown Spaniards who will play in attacking roles.
With a change in morale, change in playing style and what shouldn’t be a wholesale change in the starting 11 from last year, the reds may surprise. Pre-season results have been decent, but can they play like Barca not just on the Playstation, but on the pitch? Hard to say. Expect strong performances in front of their home fans, not so much away.
Central Coast Mariners:
The boys that spoiled the fairytale for the Wanderers last season were indeed a powerhouse, with the mercurial Graham Arnold pulling the strings. Having one of the most admired coaches in the country leading your team is handy, especially when it comes to nurturing young, raw talent. The thing that isn’t handy is the overseas clubs come to cherry pick your talent and you have to start again.
After losing Tom Rogic late last season to Celtic, 1st choice gloveman Mat Ryan, Bernie Ibini and Oliver Bozanic also headed for the international departures lounge. Pedj Bojic has gone down the F3 to Sydney FC and the big Dutchman Zwaanswijk (a 36-point word if you’re playing along at home) has hung up his boots. That’s five from the starting 11 in last year’s final. Joining the squad is Matt Simon, a previous CCM striker returning from China, Marco Flores comes up from the Victory and Dutch new boy Marcel Seip brings a good 10 years of European experience to Bluetongue Stadium. Liam ‘my goalkeeper gloves make great stubby holders’ Reddy is given a lifeline after blowing his Sydney FC contract but is hardly a replacement for Ryan.
Can the Mariners repeat last years’ efforts? Doubtful. Will they give it a good shake? Absolutely. Golden Boot winner Danny McBreen hits the net before the groundsman has put it up, Matt Simon and young Socceroo Mitchell Duke are both sharp in front of goal, but the cull that occurred behind them may be their undoing. Not to be underestimated, but don’t get over excited.
Western Sydney Wanderers
The new boys on the block last year almost had the fairytale ending. At the start of the season they were at odds of $150 to win it. Who would have thought? Coach Tony Popovic did well in his first year with what was really a bunch of random dudes and Japanese sensation Shinji Ono. But this year expectations are much greater to replicate that success, if not take it all.
They have shed a few bit-part players from last year, including Reece Ciara to Phoenix, Tarek Elrich to Adelaide and Joey Gibbs to Newcastle while regular frontman Dino Kresinger has been released. Joining the Red and White Bloc this year is ex-Sydney FC player Brendan Santalab via China, Tomi Juric and Dean Heffernan have come from other A-League clubs and in-and-out Socceroo Mathew Spiranovic joins from Qatar.
The Wanderers should hit the ground running this year. Defensively they have a wealth of experience in keeper Covic, Topor-Stanley and big-boy Beachamp who on their day are seriously hard to beat. At the other end, they will be hoping to avoid the slow goalscoring start of last year with Bridge looking most likely to feature regularly. Their main strength comes from a midfield that can score regularly in the shape of Ono and Hersi, partnered with Mooy and La Rocca who are capable of knocking a couple in. Going one better this year could be a lot to ask, but looking at where they came from last year, it’s hard to ignore the threat.
After winning the title in 2011/2012, the Roar was more like a domestic long-haired tabby last season: It looked the goods, but was struggling to get off the couch. Superstar youngster Mitch Nichols, who was on fire the year before struggled for form, normally reliable Besart ‘bi-polar‘ Berisha was hit and miss in front of goal and the overall game plan seemed to be like lawn bowls: get as close to goal as possible but don’t actually score.
There are a few notable absences: Mitch Nichols has gone to Victory, young-gun Ben Halloran got picked up by a German club, Matt Jurman went to the red half of Melbourne and Murdocca sailed off to Sydney FC. On the flip side, previous captain Matt McKay is back from his Asian invasion and ex-Sydney FC spring chicken Dimitri Petratos comes home from abroad. They also picked up experience with Irishman Liam Miller from Perth and promoted a couple of youth boys to the seniors.
Brisbane certainly have a solid starting 11, however they don’t appear to have a great depth past these players. Berisha knocking in a hattrick pre-season is a good sign and it appears as though coach Mulvey has them playing good football. Providing they good a good start, avoid injuries and Berisha finds sparkling form, the Roar will be hard to beat.
Finishing in third behind the grand final representatives last year, Victory was just like Melbourne weather: hot and cold, sometimes just nice, but not all day. Flores never really showed his worth, Archie Thompson scored some rippers but missed some sitters, the defence swung from rock solid to somewhat spongy and often conceded late, and let’s not forget the magic of the tricky little kiwi Marco Rojas. Coach Ange Postecoglou still saw room for improvement.
He started trimming the fat from his squad late last year and didn’t let up over the break. Billy Celeski and Rojas went overseas, with Velaphi (Heart), Flores (Mariners) and Diogo ‘touch of an elephant’ Ferreira (Roar) being thanked for their services. Replacing them are Kosta Barbarouses and Mitch Nichols who Ange had previously at Brisbane, Socceroo James Troisi and marquee Chilean international defender Pablo Contreras. Troisi will be looking to impress before Brazil, so he should be playing out of his skin.
Pre-season has seen acceptable but mixed results, but don’t read too much into it. The exhibition match against Liverpool was an indication as to the Victory’s capabilities and that was with about 5-6 players who will be seeing mostly plastic lawn chair time this year. With the quality and depth of the squad every player should be firing. With a host of young, speedy players, some experienced older heads and a quick-passing playing style that won’t give the opposition a break, the Victory to be the one to watch this year.
It looks to be a very even competition this year. Any team could be capable of getting up over their rivals, although some are looking more likely than others. Melbourne Victory, Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers should be in the top three, with Central Coast, Adelaide and Heart making up the Finals spots. Perth and Sydney may just pinch a place in the top six, but Newcastle and Wellington might as well start planning their end of season trip. Newcastle will get a party bus up the coast while Hernandez will make Ernie take them to where kebabs were invented.