Friday, August 11, 2006

A-League 2006-07 Season Preview Part 1

Can the bottom four from season one make the required leap into the playoff series this season? Marc Fox reports.

New Zealand Knights

After a whirlwind close season, just six players from John Adshead's first-year recruitment drive remain at the side which finished a hefty 20 points adrift at the foot of the table. And rightly so. New coach Paul Nevin - Adshead's former assistant after arriving fresh from coaching Fulham's reserves in England - has blown the cobwebs from an underachieving group with a whopping 14 new signings.

Nevin has endured the wrath of Football Federation Australia and Knights supporters alike for his insistence on improving the calibre of squad with or without New Zealand players. Only three of his acquisitions are Kiwis and he's even spoiled that piece of public relations by releasing three other New Zealanders - including player of the year 18-year-old Jeremy Brockie - from the season one squad.

But there's little doubt the club is in better shape because of it. The traditional pre-season tournament has seen the Knights string together their longest unbeaten run since the team's inception. And by common consensus they won't be the easy beats of last year. Nevin has bought in players with real character and a sense of team ownership - both elements sadly lacking in the inaugural season.

He has also immediately instilled a rigid playing system with an impressive central pairing of former internationals Richard Johnson and Scottish playmaker Scot Gemmill.

Last season: 8th

Major arrivals: Matt Carbon (Barnsley, England), Scot Gemmill (Oxford United, England), Richard Johnson (Newcastle Jets), Dani Rodrigues (Yeovil Town, England)

Major departures: Jeremy Brockie (Sydney FC), Jeremy Christie (Perth Glory)

Key man: Dani Rodrigues

One to watch: Malik Buari

Coach: Paul Nevin (first season)


Melbourne Victory

From top of the A-League in October to second bottom come round 21, Melbourne's debut season left supporters shaking their heads in disappointment. The Victory finished meekly after promising so much earlier in the campaign - the 5-0 rout of eventual champions Sydney FC when World Cup striker Archie Thompson scored twice - a classic example.

During crunch time, the depth of coach Ernie Merrick's squad was sorely tested. Thompson departed for a six-month loan spell at PSV and talismanic captain Kevin Muscat - recently recalled to the Socceroo setup - missed three crucial matches through suspension. Their replacements just never quite cut it.

But the upcoming campaign promises much more. The returning Thompson, the rejuvenated Danny Allsopp and respected Scottish midfielder Grant Brebner should provide a step up in class. An uncertain element has also been added to the Melbourne mix through Merrick's recruitment of three Brazilians: forwards Fred and Claudinho and left-sided Roberto Carlos-esque Alessandro, perhaps the pick of the bunch.

Merrick has also learnt from previous mistakes. His was the first fully-assembled squad this time after struggling through undermanned last term. Moreover, pre-season training started in earnest back in April with former Olympic sprinter Adam Basil - now turned Melbourne's strength and conditioning coach - putting the players through their paces. This in turn has delivered a fully fit and raring Muscat, something the combative defender himself admitted fans never witnessed last season.

Last season: 7th

Major arrivals: Fred, Claudinho & Alessandro (all Brazil), Grant Brebner (Dundee United, Scotland), Adrian Caceres (Perth Glory)

Major departures: Richard Kitzbichler (Salzburg, Austria)

Key man: Kevin Muscat

One to watch: Alessandro

Coach: Ernie Merrick (second season)


Queensland Roar

Even though Queensland rhetoric tells you the club were just a solitary victory from making the playoffs, the Roar's failure to win around Christmas cost them a chance of breaking into the top four. They languished outside the top half for two-thirds of the season and it was only three late season wins which propped up their points tally towards the end.

In summary, last year Queensland were defensively sound but profligate in front of goal. No surprises then that three of the team's major arrivals are international calibre strikers, and that of season one's quintet of forwards, none remain (although Socceroo Alex Brosque was nabbed by hometown club Sydney FC in acrimonious circumstances).

Coach Miron Bleiberg should have a lot of fun trying to prise ex-China striker Yuning Zhang, Scotland under-21 representative Simon Lynch and local hotshot Ante Milicic into his side despite his penchant for playing three up front. The Roar's supply line to the strikers has also been bolstered with Germany's Marcus Wedau arriving from VfL Osnabruck, a direct replacement for Korean Shin Tae-Yong who was forced into early retirement last term.

Bleiberg has wheeled and dealed his way to a vastly superior playing staff on paper but concerns still linger as to the coach's tactical proficiency and the side's ability to gel in readiness for the new season.

Last season: 6th

Major arrivals: Yuning Zhang (Shanghai Shenhau, China), Simon Lynch (Dundee, Scotland), Marcus Wedau (VfL Osnabruck, Germany), Ante Milicic (Newcastle Jets)

Major departures: Alex Brosque (Sydney FC), Jonti Richter (New Zealand Knights), Scott Higgins (Falkirk, Scotland), David Williams (Brondby, Denmark)

Key man: Hyuk-Su Seo

One to watch: Spase Dilevski

Coach: Miron Bleiberg (second season)



Perth Glory

Ownerless Perth have endured a torrid pre-season. With the FFA taking over the reigns from previous chairman Nick Tana, who relinquished the licence on April 1, progress over the club's new head coach ground to a halt. Then earlier this month, Ron Smith, the former technical director of Australia's national teams, accepted the position with ex-Socceroo David Mitchell his assistant.

Smith has very quickly added the remaining pieces to the Glory jigsaw although followers are concerned by the lack of star names. A haphazard recruitment process, reminiscent of Steve McMahon's ultimately fruitless drive a year ago, has seen really only the arrival of Stan Lazaridis wet supporters' whistles. Lazaridis, an unused squad member at the World Cup, picked Perth over premiers Adelaide - basically choosing his hometown over his wife's.

Considering Perth's suspect forward line, which truly only boasted veteran pair Bobby Despotovski and Stuart Young before Smith's arrival as coach, critics have seized on the decision to strengthen the striking department with two untested youngsters, Luka Glavas and Mimi Saric. Neither player has spent much time in the top-flight.

Lazaridis adds excellent balance to the midfield where he's certain to be deployed on the left flank after spending much of his latter Premiership career at full-back. New Zealander Jeremy Christie is also an exciting prospect while Simon Colosimo has plenty still to prove after returning from Europe.

Last season: 5th

Major arrivals: Stan Lazaridis (Birmingham City, England), Leo Bertos (Worksop Town, England), Jeremy Christie (New Zealand Knights)

Major departures: Nick Ward (QPR, England), Damian Mori (Released)

Key man: Stan Lazaridis

One to watch: Jeremy Christie

Coach: Ron Smith (first season)


Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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