Key Player: Sergio van Dijk
The 30-year-old Dutchman was the 2010/11 A-League leading scorer with 17 goals, and followed up that outstanding form with another eight goals last season. During his five game absence in the 2011/12 campaign, Adelaide failed to record a victory (four draws, one loss), emphasising the importance of the powerful left-footed striker. Uncertainty still surrounds his immediate future, with a possible move to Indonesia widely reported but denied by coach John Kosmina. Should he choose to stay, much of Adelaide’s goal-scoring focus and responsibility will remain on his shoulders.
Last Season: 9th (5 wins, 10 draws, 12 losses)
Adelaide’s results were poor by any measure. Only two home wins and three separate six-game stretches without a win shows that they never found any continuity in their performances, and subsequently finished 14 points adrift of finals. Eventual premiers Brisbane and minor premiers Central Coast smashed the Reds 7 – 1 and 4 – 0 respectively, illustrating the gulf in class. Coach Rini Coolen was the major casualty of the substandard output, replaced by former Adelaide and Sydney boss John Kosmina.
Adelaide has made the finals every second year since 2006/07. Having missed out last season, is that a positive omen for 2012/13? They have the talent and strong coaching presence to say yes, but appear unlikely to leapfrog the likes of Brisbane, Central Coast, Perth and even the strengthened Sydney and Melbourne Victory outfits.
5th – 6th
Key Player: Thomas Broich
Besart Berisha set a new A-League record with 21 goals last season, but arguably the most vital cog in the Brisbane jugganaut is Broich. Accumulating an A-League high 19 assists in the past two campaigns combined, the midfield maestro has facilitated much of the Roar’s well renowned attacking interplay. The German has also contributed nine goals, making him one of the most influential players in the competition.
Last Season: Champions, 2nd in regular season (14 wins, 7 draws, 6 losses)
Continuing on from their incredible 2010/11 title winning season, the Roar went back-to-back in controversial and intriguing circumstances. Setting a new Australian sporting club record with 36 consecutive unbeaten matches (28 to conclude 2010/11, eight to begin 2011/12), they looked borderline invincible. But when Sydney broke the streak with a 2 – 0 victory, Brisbane’s powerhouse form inexplicably disappeared. They lost five straight games, with the fifth against bottom placed and now defunct Gold Coast United setting off serious alarm bells. However, another sharp turnaround in fortunes ensued. Brisbane lost just once in their final 17 matches, beating Perth Glory 2 – 1 in the grand final due to a dubious 90th minute penalty.
Potential dynasty. They have maintained their core playing squad, but have lost supercoach Ange Postecoglou to rivals Melbourne Victory. Managerial replacement Rado Vidosic has title-winning talent at his disposal and should be able to lead the Roar to another top-two finish. If they achieve the feat, Brisbane will be the first A-League side ever to finish in the top three, three seasons in a row.
1st – 2nd
Central Coast Mariners
Key player: Mat Ryan
Named the 2011/12 A-League goalkeeper of the season, Ryan will again be crucial in the Mariners desperate hopes for a breakthrough premiers plate. That is, assuming he stays on the coast. The 20-year-old custodian has been on the radar of several European clubs and trialled with English Premier League sides West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham during pre-season. His Central Coast contract expires at the conclusion of 2012/13, meaning the Mariners may want to cash in on their hot commodity this January. In the interim, Ryan’s shot stopping ability will heavily determine the Mariners’ outcomes. Only 24 goals conceded was the fewest by any side last season and emulating that record will be priority one.
Last season: Preliminary finalists, 1st in regular season (15 wins, 6 draws, 6 losses)
Despite winning the minor premiership and again proving their doubters wrong, Central Coast will be burning from another failed finals campaign. The Mariners were the most consistent side all season, building their success around strong defence. However, the defensive foundation that provided the A-League’s best home and away record did not hold up when the whips were cracking. Brisbane put five goals past them across two semi-final legs and Perth ended the Mariners’ season with a 5 – 3 penalties win (1 – 1 full-time) in the preliminary stage.
One word will be on their lips – redemption. Central Coast has finished 2nd three times in the A-League’s seven year history, and added a third placed finish to that undesireable record in 2011/12. Alex Wilkinson will be a significant hole in defence, but coach Graham Arnold has a knack of finding adaquent replacements for key departures. Often unfashionable, the Mariners are even more often effective, and are capable of the ultimate prize.
2nd – 3rd
Key player: Richard Garcia
The 31-year-old is a high quality midfielder and a new signing that has largely gone under the radar. Given the high profile arrivals of Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono you can understand the lack of hype surrounding Garcia, but he is very well credentialed in his own right. Garcia has spent the past five years with English Championship side Hull City, featuring a two-season stint in the Premier League, as well as earning 14 caps for the Socceroos. His technique, leadership and experience against world-class opposition will be highly useful in assisting the Heart’s largely youthful squad.
Last season: Week one semi-finalists, 6th in regular season (9 wins, 10 draws, 8 losses)
Melbourne’s second season in the A-League produced the club’s first taste of finals action. Playing finals with such an inexperienced squad is an effort worth applauding, however the Heart’s strong start promised more than a sixth placing and an early finals exit. Led by young stars Eli Babalj, Curtis Good, Brendan Hamill and Matt Dugandzic, Melbourne won five straight matches to be second after 13 rounds. However, the longevity of a professional football season took its toll on the young brigade, causing the Heart to slip. They only won two matches in the final 14 rounds, although did manage seven draws to maintain a finals position. In their elimination semi-final, a Shane Smeltz hat-trick spurred Perth to a deserved 3 – 0 triumph.
The Heart have lost significant talent with the movement of Babalj, Good and Hamill to greener pastures overseas. The club can take solace in seeing their project players bearing fruit, but it leaves them somewhat stretched. Debut coach and former Heart player John Aloisi has offset the departures with some useful acquisitions, yet it is difficult to envisage rapid improvement in team results.
7th – 8th
Key player: Marcos Flores
Winner of the Johnny Warren A-League player of the year award in 2010/11 for Adelaide United, Flores has returned to Australia as the Victory’s marquee signing. Many superlatives can be associated with the Argentinian. He is agile, creative, clinical and elusive. There are few A-League players better at beating defenders one-on-one and at 26-years-of-age, his best football is hopefully still ahead. Flores himself has suggested he could play in a variety of roles this season, but having scored some of the more awe-inspiring A-League goals, he should predominately slot into his customary attacking midfield position.
Last season: 8th (6 wins, 11 draws, 10 losses)
The 2011/12 season was an absolute debacle for the Victory. Coach Mehmet Durakovic was sacked in January and replaced by Jim Magilton, who has since been replaced by legendary Australian coach Ange Postecoglou. Star signing Harry Kewell, much like the entire Victory side, struggled to get going. While Kewell eventually discovered a resemblance of his capabilities, the Victory collectively could only manage flashes. Their sporadic performances were well below expectations, particularly given the vast array of senior talent. Ultimately, it was a wasted season for the blue half of Melbourne.
Ange Postecoglou’s record at Brisbane, and in general, speaks for itself. The Victory has released several senior players and lost Costa Rican gem Carlos Hernandez. However, their squad still boasts the likes of Archie Thompson, Mark Milligan and Flores, so expect high quality football. The Victory have never missed the finals in two consecutive seasons, and that should stay in tact.
3rd – 4th
For all the 2012/13 A-League transfers to date, click here
Key Player: Emile Heskey
The English Premier League journeyman and marquee signing will be vital, both on and off the pitch. There are queries surrounding the financial status of the Jets, which places further focus on Heskey’s performances. If the burly 34-year-old striker fires, Newcastle should receive a boost in crowds and prosperity. Off-field matters aside, Heskey could be the difference between another low table finish or a genuine finals tilt. He is a powerful forward with proven goal scoring nous, and while he only managed one goal for Villa last season, the standard of the A-League is several echelons below the EPL, so his tally should rise dramatically.
Last season: 7th (10 wins, 5 draws, 12 losses)
The Jets just missed out on a finals berth for the second consecutive season. Inconsistency was their enemy, as shown by their first six matches: Win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Newcastle’s five draws for the season were clearly the least of the bottom four sides, indicating they had greater scope to secure three points but the gap between their best and worst was gaping.
Highly active in off-season, Newcastle recruited 13 players and bidded farewell to 11. The changes make the Jets somewhat of a mystery. They appear to be stronger and there is serious top-end quality, but it is rare that such an overhaul of a squad produces instant results.
6th – 7th
Key Player: Shane Smeltz
The A-League’s all-time leading scorer, Smeltz will again be central to Perth’s title ambitions. Only Brisbane scored more goals than the Glory last season and that was largely on the back of Smeltz. The New Zealand international is a pure striker, regularly finding himself in the right place at the right time. He scored 13 of Perth’s 40 regular season goals, and added another four during their impressive finals campaign.
Last season: Grand finalists, 3rd in regular season (13 wins, 4 draws, 10 losses)
Perth had a remarkable season and very nearly pinched the premiers plate. Winning their first three matches, the Glory looked to have developed into the real deal, following a ninth placed finish in 2010/11. Yet between rounds 4 – 13 they only managed one win, one draw and suffered seven losses. Suddenly, coach Ian Ferguson was under severe pressure and a promising campaign had seemingly imploded. But another burst of momentum, this time of the positive variety, yielded 12 wins from 17 matches and thrust Perth into the grand final against Brisbane. Were it not for an incorrect penalty awarded to Brisbane’s Besart Berisha, the Glory could conceivably be the current reigning premiers. Instead, the 2 -1 defeat has them empty handed and with another mountain to climb.
The excitement of Perth’s meteoric rise is likely to be juxtaposed with lingering seething feelings from their grand final injustice. Adding Michael Thwaite, Adrian Zahra and Scott Jamieson has provided depth to an already high quality side. They will face serious challenges from below, particularly Sydney and Melbourne Victory, but should be well and truly in the title mix.
4th – 5th
Key player: Alessandro Del Piero
Given Sydney’s defensive frailties last season, you could argue that Adam Griffiths or Sebastian Ryall could be their most critical players in the pursuit of improvement. But it’s impossible to go past the biggest signing in Australian football history. Del Piero is an Italian football god and unlike some previous champions that have used the A-League as their retirement village, the 37-year-old striker looks capable of providing an elite standard that does justice to his high profile. Since 1993, Del Piero has plied his trade with Italian giants Juventus. He made over 500 appearances and scored 208 goals for the Bianconeri (both club records), leading them to six Serie A titles. He was also a central figure in Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph. His credentials are a mile long, but in simplistic terms Del Piero shapes as the most exciting and influential player in the competition.
Last season: Week one semi-finalists, 5th in regular season (10 wins, 8 draws, 9 losses)
Sydney were respectable without being outstanding. The addition of Socceroos star Brett Emerton at the start of 2011/12 suggested the Sky Blues had the ability to quickly recover from their ninth placing in 2010/11 and after round six, three wins in four matches backed up those ideas. But a mid-season four game losing streak haulted hopes and put them in danger of missing the finals altogether. A late surge of four wins, two draws and one loss in their final seven matches thrust the Sky Blues skyward, reclaiming an elimination semi-final slot. Wellington outlasted Sydney in the final 3 – 2, with four of the five goals scored occurring in a frantic seven minute burst.
The Sky Blues have lost noteworthy talent – Nick Carle, Michael Beauchamp and Mark Bridge to name a few. But arguably, the ins outweigh the outs – Del Piero, Griffiths, Paul Reid, Fabio and more have been recruited. Sydney’s attacking prowess is irrefutable, while questions still linger over their defence. They conceded 42 goals last season, seven more than any other finals side. Brisbane are still the benchmark, but Del Piero inspired, Sydney could join the top of the pile.
2nd – 3rd
Key player: Paul Ifill
Perhaps its proximity, perhaps it’s Wellington’s lower profile. Whatever the reason, it seems Ifill doesn’t receive the credit he has thoroughly earned. When discussing the A-League’s best players, he must rate a mention. Since moving from English Championship side Crystal Palace in 2009, Ifill has been Wellington’s go-to man in attack. He is adaptable, a regular source of goals and an equally proficient facilitator. The Phoenix struggled for goals last season and while Ifill led the way with eight, the supporting acts of Tim Brown (six goals) and Chris Greenacre (five goals) both retired at the end of 2011/12. The onus is overwhelmingly on Ifill’s boot.
Last season: Week two semi-finalists, 4th in regular season (12 wins, 4 draws, 11 losses)
It’s becoming a common theme – Wellington defied the critics with their third consecutive finals assault. Ricky Herbert’s men started very slowly, winning just one of their opening nine matches. They soon clicked into gear though, accumulating 11 wins in 17 matches. During the stretch, the Phoenix did not share the points once, losing the other six clashes. Finishing fourth pitted Wellington against Sydney. The thrilling 3 – 2 victory setup a clash with another team in red-hot form – Perth Glory. Another entertaining encounter, but on this occasion the 3 – 2 scoreline went against the Phoenix.
Season after season, Wellington continue to prove everybody wrong. Despite knowing the risks associated with writing them off, it’s difficult to envisage the Phoenix being potent enough to challenge for finals football. They scored the least goals of any finals side in 2011/12, and the deficiency looks even more apparent now with Brown and Greenacre’s retirements. They are a fighting bunch, but they appear to be out of their weight division in 2012/13.
8th – 9th
Western Sydney Wanderers
Key player: Shinji Ono
The Japanese international is a great choice as a marquee player to promote the newest A-League franchise. Highly regarded for his passing ability and vision in midfield, the 33-year-old is likely to be a regular link in the Wanderer’s goal-scoring chains. Having most recently played for J-League side Shimizu S-Pulse, you would expect Ono to quickly adapt to the A-League’s style of play.
Last season: N/A, new franchise
Coach and former Socceroos defender Tony Popovic has poached numerous senior players from other A-League clubs to formulate his debut squad. The list reads well, however history is against the Wanderers. New franchises tend to struggle in their first season as players search for an understanding with their teammates and grasp their new environment. Finals are not beyond the realm of possibility – the A-League is a very even competition. But somebody has to finish at the bottom, and Western Sydney look to be that side.
9th – 10th