A-League season guide: The teams that can challenge Melbourne City and Sydney

The A-League season kicks off on Friday night and there is a strong vibe of new beginnings in the air. But away from all the broadcast deals, ownership structures and political wrangling, the most important action is on the pitch.

So, how has your team prepared for the 2021-22 season, and how will they fare when the whistle is blown? Here is the A-League’s team-by-team guide, as compiled by The Age and Herald experts.

There is a huge hype surrounding Adelaide United teenager Mohamed Toure.Credit:Getty Images

ADELAIDE UNITED

Coach: Carl Veart
Last season: 5th
In: Isaías Sánchez, George Blackwood, Nick Ansell.
Out: Tomi Jurić, Ryan Strain, Jordan Elsey, Al Hassan Toure.
Key player: Craig Goodwin. The Socceroo wide man is quick, skilful, committed and feisty, and has been a major threat for United. Left sided, Goodwin’s experience, know-how and ability will be essential if the Reds are to go one better than last season’s semi-final finish.

Rising star: Mohamed Toure. Has made an indelible impression in a very short time and his pace, power, and enthusiasm make him a handful for any defence.

Big question: Will the likes of Goodwin, Toure and the returning George Blackwood be able to replace the goals that have gone missing with the departure of Tomi Juric to Macarthur? Last season the Reds were outscored by both West Sydney and Wellington, clubs who finished below them on the ladder, so Veart’s men need to find some extra sharpness and need to tighten up at the back if they are to improve, having conceded more goals than all but four other clubs last season.
Prediction: Should be battling for a spot in the finals, hard to see them near the top of the table.

BRISBANE

Coach: Warren Moon
Last season: 4th, elimination final
In: Juan Lescano, Jordan Holmes, Jez Lofthouse, Nikola Mileusnić, Matti Steinmann, Luke Ivanovic, Henry Hore.
Out: Masato Kudo, Jamie Young, Dylan Wenzel-Halls, Riku Danzaki, Macaulay Gillesphey.
Key player: Juan Lescano. Experienced Argentine strikerwho has not hit the heights he might have hoped for when moving to Europe as a teenager to play firstly with Liverpool’s development set-up, then Real Madrid’s. But he has had an interesting, if itinerant, career.
Rising star: Jez Lofthouse. When you have featured in the NPL Queensland team of the season for three years running, scored 44 goals in 114 games and registered almost as many assists, then it’s obvious you have earned your chance to shine in the A-League.
Big question: Can the Roar build on the progress that has been made under Moon and go deep into the finals this year? Brisbane have lost goalkeeper Jamie Young and talented young striker Dylan Wenzel Halls, but the coach will be hoping his phalanx of talented young locals can pick up the slack.
Prediction: This could be a tough year if Lescano and company cannot score more goals than last year, when only one of the top nine teams scored fewer. Will miss Gillesphey at the back and Young’s experience in goal.

CENTRAL COAST MARINERS

Coach: Nick Montgomery
Last season: 3rd
In: Nicolai Müller, Cy Goddard, Bèni Nkololo, Moresche Rodrigues.
Out: Jordan Smylie, Gianni Stensness, Daniel De Silva, Jack Clisby, Alou Kuol, Stefan Nigro.
Key player: Marco Urena. Foreigners usually kick on in their second season in Australia and the Mariners need that from the Costa Rican international, who tipped in five goals last term but contributed to their attack in many more intangible ways.

Can Costa Rican striker Marco Urena kick on for the Mariners?Credit:Getty

Rising star: Jacob Farrell. The 18-year-old left-back is another local product and has been torching experienced rivals during the pre-season, to the point where one of them asked “who the hell is that kid?” after a torrid 90-minute battle down the flank.
Big question: Can lightning strike twice? Central Coast surprised everyone – even themselves – with their stunning run to last season’s finals series. But Alen Stajcic, the man who engineered it, is gone, and so too are a handful of the players who did the business for him on the field, like midfield pivot Gianni Stensness and game-changing forward Alou Kuol. Nick Montgomery has huge shoes to fill.
Prediction: It’ll take another miracle for the Mariners to stay in the finals mix for a second year running. But miracles do happen.

MACARTHUR FC

Coach: Ante Milicic
Last season: 6th
In: Ulises Dávila, Daniel De Silva, Tomi Juric, Craig Noone, Tomislav Uskok, Jordon Mutch, Al Hassan Toure.
Out: Denis Genreau, Matt Derbyshire, Markel Susaeta, Mark Milligan, Beñat Etxebarria, Ivan Franjic, Loic Puyo, Adam Federici.
Key player: There’s a reason Wellington Phoenix used to revolve around Ulises Dávila. Snatching him was a serious coup for Macarthur, who were arguably lacking a playmaker in attacking midfield and have filled that need with one of the best available. The only question mark surrounds his fitness, after a hamstring injury curtailed some of his output last term.
Rising star: Lachie Rose got the hype last season but the substance might be in Jake Hollman, a player whom Sydney FC were filthy about losing from their academy to join the Bulls. Has had a taste of the A-League, but is expected to play much more first-team football this time around.

Big question: How much will the abrupt pre-season departures of inaugural skipper-turned-assistant coach Mark Milligan and his successor as skipper, Adam Federici, impact them? The pair of former Socceroos were pivotal figures behind the scenes in the Bulls’ first season and helped bed down a culture that got them into the finals at the first time of asking. Those sort of types don’t grow on trees.
Prediction: Honestly, who knows? The squad looks way too good to fail, but the noises out of Sydney’s south-west don’t bode well.

Ulises Davila has been a star for Wellington Phoenix. Can he bring the same form to Macarthur?Credit:Getty Images

MELBOURNE CITY

Coach: Patrick Kisnorbo
Last season: 1st, champions
In: Mathew Leckie, Manuel Pucciarelli, Jordan Hall.
Out: Moudi Najar, Ramy Najjarine, Ben Garuccio, Craig Noone, Adrian Luna, Naoki Tsubaka.
Key player: Mat Leckie. The sometime Socceroos captain and forward returns to Australia for the final years of his career after a successful decade in Germany. Leckie made his name in the A-League with Adelaide as a hard-working striker, and he has stuck with that template while gaining a wealth of experience in one the world’s toughest leagues and for the national team at two World Cups and Asian Cups.
Rising star: Marco Tillio The ex-Sydney FC youngster made a big impression in City’s charge to the title last season, coming into the team or off the bench to stunning effect on a number of occasions. Also starred for the Olyroos in Japan, scoring a beautiful goal just moments after coming on as a substitute against Argentina.
Big question: Can they go back to back and join Brisbane Roar and Sydney FC as the only two clubs to have won the championship twice since the league’s inception in 2005-06? They have all the attributes needed: a strong squad, the A-League’s top marksman in Jamie Maclaren, a tight defence, excellent fullbacks and a strong midfield. Allied to that, they have the best-resourced football department in the domestic game.
Prediction: Anything less than a grand final appearance would be a significant step back for a club whose aim is to dominate the Australian game.

MELBOURNE VICTORY

Coach: Tony Popovic
Last season: 12th
In: Ben Folami, Jason Geria, Josh Brillante, Jason Davidson, Stefan Nigro, Matthew Spiranovic, Chris Ikonomidis, Brendan Hamill, Rai Marchan, Ivan Kelava, Nick D’Agostino, Roderick Miranda, Francesco Margiotta, Jerrad Tyson.
Out: Nick Ansell, Max Crocombe, Storm Roux, Adama Traore, Ryan Shotton, Dylan Ryan, So Nishikawa, Rudy Gestede, Callum McManaman, Jacob Butterfield, Elvis Kamsoba, Matthew Bozinovski (loaned out to Wellington Phoenix).
Key player: Chris Ikonomidis. The reason he signed for Victory was simple: Tony Popovic was now the coach, and having worked with him in Perth he knows how good Popovic is. The Socceroos forward is pretty good himself, however, and now, having recovered from an ACL injury, he is keen to repay his coach’s faith.
Rising star: Lleyton Brooks has impressed with cameos in his nine appearances so far in what was a struggling side, netting twice in the process.

New Victory coach Tony Popovic.Credit:AP

Big question: Will they fail again? It’s hard to see Victory not bouncing back, but will it take too much time for this disparate squad to gel – at least for them to make a run for a top-two position?
Prediction: Should definitely make the finals, and by the end of the season will be a much more cohesive force than at the start.

NEWCASTLE JETS

Coach: Arthur Papas
Last season: 11th
In: Matthew Jurman, Dane Ingham, Mohamed Al-Taay, Riley Warland, Beka Mikeltadze, Jordan Elsey, Olivier Boumal, Dylan Murnane, Samuel Silvera, Savvas Siatravanis, Kosta Grozos, Daniel Penha.
Out: Joey Champness, Nigel Boogaard, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Ali Abbas, Roy O’Donovan, Matt Millar, Lewis Italiano, James Donachie, Connor O’Toole, Johnny Koutroumbis.
Key player: Former Socceroo Matthew Jurman has been around the block in the A-League many times, and seems to be the perfect cornerstone for this new-look Jets defence. He’s a leader, he can snuff out attacks in an instant, and he can help get them going the other way with his calm passing out of defence.
Rising star: Kosta Grosos. It feels like this former Wanderers academy product has been around forever. Never got a run at his old club, much to the chagrin of fans who thought he had some sort of mystical creative quality that was being wasted. We’ll soon see.
Big question: Can any of their foreigners actually play? None of them are household names, and they all have the kind of CVs that scream either boom or bust in this competition. The strength of a team’s imports usually dictates success in the A-League, and with so many of Newcastle’s crop being front-third players, their whole attack will depend on it.
Prediction: The Jets will be painfully frustrating – they’ll put together a few eye-catching passages of “Papas-ball”, but it’ll take time to do it consistently.

PERTH GLORY

Coach: Richard Garcia
Last season: 9th
In: Daniel Sturridge, Brad Jones, Aaron Calver, Jack Clisby Brandon O’Neil, Adrian Sardinero, Mitch Oxborrow, Pacifique Niyongabire, Antonee Burke-Gilroy
Out: Tando Velaphi, Jason Geria, Dane Ingham, Sebastian Langkamp, Riley Warland, Neil Kilkenny, Nick Sullivan, Brandon Wilson, Nick D’Agostino, Chris Ikonomodis, Diego Castro
Key player: Without a doubt, Daniel Sturridge. The ex-Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City striker has generated plenty of attention Australia wide. One of the truly gifted strikers in his youth, no one doubts the England international’s talent: it is the fragility of his body that has constantly been called into question. If he is fit and firing he will make a massive impact on the league.
Rising star: Josh Rawlins. Fullbacks are not usually the sort of players who generate rising star nominations, but he became the youngest player to start a match last season – three months short of his 17th birthday – and should be one to watch this season.

Daniel Sturridge poses with Perth Glory owner Tony Sage (left) and CEO Tony Pignata after finally escaping hotel quarantine.Credit:Getty

Big question: No team has been harder hit than the Glory by border closures and state government strictures because of COVID, and nowhere are the strictures more severe than in Perth. After their opening home game on November 20, Glory will not be playing in their home state until at least January, possibly longer depending on WA vaccination rates. Their fear must be that they are cast adrift in the wrong half of the table before then.
Prediction: The punishing away schedule will take its toll, and the concern is that they will be playing too much catch-up in the second half of the season.

SYDNEY FC

Coach: Steve Corica
Last season: 2nd
In: Max Burgess, James Donachie, Elvis Kamsoba.
Out: Ryan McGowan, Jordan Swibel, Alexander Baumjohann.
Key player: Milos Ninkovic. He’s 36 and into his sixth season with the club, but he can still change a game whenever he wants to. Coming off his second Johnny Warren Medal win, this is probably his last run around in the A-League before retirement, and it’s safe to say the Sky Blues are still largely built around him.

Sydney FC skipper Alex Wilkinson and Johnny Warren medal winner Milos Ninkovic are back for another A-League season.Credit:Getty

Rising star: Calem Nieuwenhof. Showed in flashes last season, before his campaign was ended prematurely by a back injury, that despite his tender age of 20 he is an A-League quality midfielder, right now.
Big question: Is this one too many seasons for this crop of players? Continuity has been the bedrock of Sydney’s recent success, but so many key members of this squad are the wrong side of 30, and at some stage their bodies will start to reflect it. As rivals mount challenges built largely on the energy and vitality of youth, it remains to be seen if they Sky Blues have the balance right.
Prediction: It’s hard to see them not missing the finals – but equally hard to see them matching it with a peak Melbourne City.

WESTERN UNITED

Coach: John Aloisi
Last season: 10th
In: Neil Kilkenny, Dylan Wenzel-Halls, Jamie Young, Ben Garuccio , Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Noah Botic, Rene Krhin, Leo Lacroix, Aleksandar Prijovic, Christian Theoharous, Adiseu Bayew, Ajak Deu, Rhys Bozinovski.
Out: Victor Sanchez, Besart Berisha, Max Burgess, Aaron Calver, Tomislav Uskok, Filip Kurto, Iker Guarrotxena, Bradden Inman, Andrew Durante, Brendan Hamill.
Key player: Alessandro Diamanti. The former Italian international might be rising 40, he might be slower than he once was, but the brain remains as sharp and the skills as silky as ever. A true talisman for a team badly in need of identity and positivity.
Rising star: It seems an age now since Sebastian Pasquali announced himself as a prodigiuous talent with an audacious display for Melbourne Victory against Juventus while still a student. His career has never reached the heights many hoped and frustrating spells in the Netherlands with Ajax and then an injury riddled return to the A_League have not helped. If he could return to the promise he once showed he could make an impact. Still just 22.
Big question: A new coach in John Aloisi, new optimism and new players make this an interesting season for Western, who did so well in their first campaign and then flopped so badly in their second, both under inaugural boss Mark Rudan. If Aloisi can get the blend of experienced European imports and ambitious young Australians right they could surprise a few. Playing games at AAMI Park rather than wandering from city to city should help too.

Prediction: Will want to hit the ground running. Could give the finals a shake, unlikely to be as poor as they were in second half of last season.

WELLINGTON PHOENIX

Coach: Ufuk Talay
Last season: 7th
In: Gary Hooper. Nicholas Pennington, Luka Prso
Out: Ulises Dávila, Tomer Hemed, Steven Taylor, Cameron Devlin
Key player: Gary Hooper. Back for his second stint with the Phoenix after a brief stop-off in India, the English striker has already shown the A-League what he can do. Now the Phoenix really need it from him, especially after their chief goalscorer Tomer Hemed left for greener pastures in Western Sydney.
Rising star: Ben Waine. The ‘Waine Train’, as Wellington fans call it, is gathering momentum. This tidy forward looks to be the latest quality graduate off the Phoenix’s academy program, which has already pumped out two star All-Whites in Libby Cacace and Sarpreet Singh.
Big question: Will they be able to play at home soon? The Phoenix got to play in front of two bumper crowds across the ditch when restrictions loosened up last season, and even half an A-League campaign with that sort of backing would make a real difference for them on the pitch, especially with such a lean squad. Living out of a suitcase once again must be hard work, and it’s a challenge only the Glory will have to put up with in the early part of the season.
Prediction: Somehow, Talay will make this group uber-competitive, but it won’t be enough to crack the top six.

WESTERN SYDNEY WANDERERS

Coach: Carl Robinson
Last season: 8th
In: Tomer Hemed, Dimitri Petratos, Rhys Williams, Tomás Mejías, Ramy Najjarine, Jack Rodwell.
Out: Graham Dorrans, Bruce Kamau, Jordon Mutch, Dylan McGowan.
Key player: Steven Ugarkovic. Newcastle Jets fans were fuming when he left for a reason – because he’s arguably the A-League’s premier midfielder, capable of providing the perfect link between defence and attack, and can dictate the tempo of a match on his own. It’s probably too late in his career for him to make a Socceroos run, but that’s how highly he’s thought of in some quarters.
Rising star: Ramy Najjarine. Has shown glimpses of ability at the Jets and, before that, Melbourne City, and is clearly capable of special things – so long as he can keep his body in one piece and avoid the punishment routinely doled out to him by defenders.

Jack Rodwell is a big signing for the Wanderers.Credit:Louie Douvis

Big question: Does Carl Robinson know his starting XI? He spent all of last season trying to figure it out, only to get rid of most of them. The Wanderers need consistency and that won’t happen if their coach continues to chop and change by the week. They need him to find his best team quickly and stick with it so combinations can be bedded down appropriately.
Prediction: Finals should be a bare minimum – if they don’t look like making it by midway through, they’ll be searching for a new coach.

Most Viewed in Sport

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article