Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A-League Season Preview Part 2

Soccerphile completes its season preview by profiling the A-League’s four in-form clubs: Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC, Perth Glory and Central Coast Mariners.

MELBOURNE VICTORY

Record-breaking forward Archie Thompson is the pick of the Australian national team players to have been welcomed home.

The 26-year-old former Marconi Stallion was Melbourne’s first-ever signing when he agreed to join the Victory at the end of his contract with Lierse in Belgium’s Juniper League.

As one of only two home-based players selected for Guus Hiddink’s first full squad and with his best years still ahead of him, Thompson’s arrival has caught the imagination of the Victorian public.

Two other certain starters for Melbourne have made a similar journey from Northern Europe.

Former Belgium international defender Geoffrey Claeys has signed after spending the past four seasons at Royal Excelsior Mouscron. The 30-year-old enjoyed spells at Anderlecht and Dutch giants Feyenoord before that.

Meanwhile, left-winger Andy Vlahos joins from Cercle Brugge. Austrian Richard Kitzbichler, a player who featured in Austria Vienna’s UEFA Cup run to the quarter-final last season, will be Vlahos’ partner on the opposite flank.

However, despite all the arrivals from mainland Europe, the feather in coach Ernie Merrick’s cap was luring Kevin Muscat home after a successful career in Britain.

The Scottish coach knows the Socceroo well from his days in charge of NSL side Sunshine George Cross, the club where Merrick handed a 16-year-old Muscat his debut.

Key man: Archie Thompson


SYDNEY FC


An imposing roll of honour points to Sydney FC as clear winners of the historical first A-League championship.

Victory in the Club World Championship qualifiers in May laid down an early domestic marker, with the pre-season favourite then sweeping aside the region’s best in Tahiti.

As Oceania champions, it now has the opportunity to face the likes of Liverpool and Sao Paulo in December’s competition in Japan.

Sydney’s recruitment hasn’t been bad either.

In German Pierre Littbarski, the league’s glamour club has employed a former World Cup winner as head coach, with Champions League medallist Dwight Yorke pulling the strings up front.

Furthermore, three current Socceroos adorn its playing staff in strikers Saso Petrovski and David Zdrilic, and goalkeeper Clint Bolton.

That said Sydney fell at the semi-final stage of the league’s pre-season tournament to Perth, its 18-match unbeaten run ending in the process.

The form of Yorke has also been a minor concern for Littbarski with the Trinidad and Tobago international netting just once in three games.

Still, the class of the 20-strong squad is apparent, not only in the forward line but with midfielders Terry McFlynn from Northern Ireland and Australian David Carney in particular.

23-year-old central defender Iain Fyfe is also one to watch at the back.

Key man: Dwight Yorke


PERTH GLORY

In spite of lingering problems in attack, former National League champion Perth Glory has slowly crept into pundits’ minds as serious contenders.

Even without ex-England international striker Brian Deane, who has finally touched down in Australia in time for this week’s season opener, the Glory made it all the way to the Pre-Season Cup final.

With the robust Deane likely to be thrust straight into the starting XI, he will add an even greater physical presence to Perth’s forward line in partnership with local legend and all-time leading scorer Bobby Despotovski.

Perth has cultivated a competitive squad although a number of recruits have a point to prove to the Australian public, notably Simon Colosimo after the stylish midfielder was dropped from the Socceroos squad by new coach Guus Hiddink.

Colosimo flattered to deceive during a short-lived spell with Manchester City and needs to win round hard-line coach Steve McMahon.

22-year-old centre-half David Tarka too received his fair share of criticism in England while playing for Nottingham Forest, with a hamstring injury sidelining him for much of the pre-season.

Meanwhile, experienced goalkeeper Jason Petkovic returns to the club where he won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004.

Key man: Bobby Despotovski


CENTRAL COAST MARINERS

The Central Coast Mariners charge into the season proper on the back of winning the final of the pre-season curtain raiser against Perth Glory.

To some the Mariners have been a surprise package, with coach Lawrie McKinna content to play along with the underdogs tag when being compared to New South Wales rivals Sydney and Newcastle.

Not any more. Collecting the first silverware of the season has dispelled suggestions the Mariners are also-rans for the inaugural A-League, with the pressure to impress a fanatical local support increasing.

Much of the Central Coast’s success can be attributed to its settled squad. McKinna completed the bulk of his recruitment months back and has endured few disruptions since.

The squad has escaped serious injury and has generally been unaffected by international call-ups with only defender Michael Beauchamp involved in national team duties in the last week.

It’s not unfair to suggest the Mariners are a united team rather than a group of talented individuals.

Seven of the squad members followed McKinna from Northern Spirit in the old NSL while the Scottish coach added two classic pick-ups from 2004 champions Perth in Nick Mrdja and Tom Pondeljak.

Much will rest of the shoulders of the former Glory duo, especially Mrdja, the 26-year-old ace goal poacher who stood third in the 2004 scoring charts.

Key man: Nick Mrdja

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