The A-League season begins on Friday night at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney with two clubs that missed out on finals football last season. Sydney FC, who have not won against A-League competition in the pre-season, host Newcastle Jets who are missing their Marquee Player. Perhaps not the greatest way to start the season, especially with a Melbourne Derby and a rematch of the 2012/13 Grand Final coming on Saturday, but the league wants to highlight high profile clubs for its free-to-air Friday night matches, and Sydney certainly fits that description. Here's where each club stands as the pre-season concludes and the regular season begins:
Friday October 11:
- Sydney FC v Newcastle Jets - Allianz Stadium
Sydney struggled to score in the pre-season, especially after its mid-August trip to Italy. The Sky Blues did not defeat anyone, let alone A-League clubs, after a 1-0 win against AS Cittadella on August 14. Against A-League sides, Sydney gave up three goals against Wellington, four against Brisbane and three against Perth in the month of September. Alessandro Del Piero only returned to the pitch on September 29 after playing in Italy, but he could not prevent a 3-0 whitewashing at the hands of Perth Glory. On paper the Sky Blues have a revamped attacking line-up with Corey Gameiro (who will miss the next six weeks after a freak injury) and Richard Garcia set to aid Del Piero in what was already one of the higher scoring teams in 2012/13. Yet Sydney scored just twice in five September friendlies, including in a 2-1 loss to St. George FC. Sydney are experienced and strong in many areas, so perhaps it is worth ignoring results from matches that did not include a full strength side. Yet the difficulties in pre-season were so pronounced, it could be a slow start to the year until Frank Farina's side get settled.
Newcastle have added fewer pieces than Sydney, but those additions include Joey Gibbs, Kew Jaliens and Nathan Burns through January. The Jets were relieved to hear Burns, who is on loan from Korea, did not suffer a more serious injury to his hamstring in mid-September and is expected to start the season for Newcastle against the Sky Blues on Friday. The same cannot be said for Marquee Player Emile Heskey, whose MCL strain will keep him out at least six weeks. In 2012/13, big crowds turned out to see the Del Piero/Heskey match-up, so this year's version will certainly be without quite as much star power. Yet in that game, despite both stars scoring, it was Craig Goodwin who netted the winner for the Jets. Goodwin just scored twice in last Sunday's pre-season finale against Central Coast Mariners. Combined with James Virgili, Goodwin has helped provide scoring from non-Burns/Heskey sources, which is surely a good sign for Gary Van Egmond. Newcastle only missed out on the finals last season by a single point, so even marginal improvement could lead to a serious challenge for the postseason. The key will be getting as much as possible out of Burns before the end of January, especially in high profile matches like Friday's league opener.
Saturday October 12:
- Central Coast Mariners v Western Sydney Wanderers - Bluetongue Stadium
The 2012/13 championship holders have lost quite a few pieces from the side that has been so successful under Graham Arnold. From Mat Ryan and Bernie Ibini to Oliver Bozanic and Daniel McBreen (at least for a few more weeks), the Mariners needed to do a lot in the offseason to maintain their high standards. Matt Simon's return has already paid dividends as he found his scoring form in Central Coast's run to the final of the Menpora Cup in Indonesia last week, and Marcos Flores could be a revelation after a difficult season last year at Melbourne Victory. As usual, Arnold has a strong contingent of youth players to complement the more experienced players in his squad, including Anthony Caceras, Storm Roux and Hayden Morton. Marcel Seip's addition to the back line should adequately replace the now-retired Patrick Zwaanswijk and give Central Coast stability. And yet, starting the season against last season's premiership winners is a difficult task, even if it is at Bluetongue. Central Coast will be very good again this season and a result on Saturday could put the Mariners near the top of the ladder from the opening weekend.
Winners of the premiership in their first season, Western Sydney have opted to keep things mostly the same for their sophomore season in the A-League. While they've added goal scoring threats in Tomi Juric and Brendon Santalab, the majority of the league's best regular season team in 2012/13 is still in place. That said, the Wanderers have not beaten A-League opposition in the pre-season since August 21 and dropped two games on a brief tour of Japan and China (their 5-0 defeat of Guangzhou R&F came against a youth side). Most recently, a full strength Western Sydney lost 3-0 to Melbourne Victory in Tasmania, allowing a goal in the first minute and giving up an absurd own-goal. This is not to suggest the Wanderers will not be good in year two, but maybe signs from the pre-season point to a side that overachieved and rode a wave of local enthusiasm all the way to the Grand Final. Western Sydney will be a strong side at home again, but could start the season on the back foot if the recent trends are at all indicative of where this club was at the end of September.
Saturday October 12:
- Melbourne Victory v Melbourne Heart - Etihad Stadium
The second season under Ange Postecoglou was a sparking one for Brisbane Roar in 2010/11. This season is Postecoglou's second at Melbourne Victory and is expected to yield similar results. Though the Victory dumped last season's International Marquee Player, Marcos Flores, and lost the 2012/13 Johnny Warren Medal winner Marco Rojas, last year's third place finishers have restocked with Mitch Nichols, Kosta Barbarouses and James Troisi. Add in experienced defender Pablo Contreras and the Victory have one of the best looking rosters in the league. With Mark Milligan secured as the club's captain and arguably best player, Postecoglou has myriad options ranging from stalwart Archie Thompson to youngsters like Conor Pain and Andrew Nabbout. With a derby to start the season for the second straight year, the Victory are poised to make a strong start and begin a run toward the top teams in the A-League.
Melbourne Heart made a strong start to offseason recruitment in signing Harry Kewell and towering midfielder Orlando Engelaar as an International Marquee. But the injury to the Dutchman in his first pre-season game has left John Aloisi scrambling to change his plans for the upcoming season. Perhaps in a bid to keep up with their city rivals, Heart have signed a number of 30-somethings, including Rob Wielaert, Patrick Kisnorbo and Michael Mifsud. While there is clearly potential for those players to combine with the leftovers from a poor 2012/13 season, the odds are high that injuries could yet play a major part in this 2013/14 season. If all of Heart's recruitments can stay on the field, there should be little doubt that they will improve upon their ninth place finish but two goals in four A-League pre-season games is not exactly an encouraging lead-in to the season. A loss on opening night to the Victory would not be the best way to begin a campaign that is filled with many questions.