ABC's Phil Dando will preview each round each week for newcastlejets.com.au. Find out what he has to say about Round 1!
That's a good word to start my first column with, isn't it?
It seems an eternity since Besart Berisha scored the controversial penalty that won the Grand Final for Brisbane Roar for the second consecutive year and just as we were thinking that the eighth season of the A-League was headed for a low-key build-up, three of the best-credentialed marquee players ever dropped in and the publicity and hype went into overdrive! So “wow” is probably appropriate!
Firstly, Juventus and Italy legend, Alessandro Del Piero was enticed to the harbour city by Sydney F.C. Shortly after, the Jets managed to secure the services of the 62 times capped England international, Emile Heskey, and following hot on the heels of that announcement, newcomers Western Sydney Wanderers introduced their new marquee signing, Japanese midfield general Shinji Ono.
So, who has got the best deal? Del Piero, who scored 208 goals in 513 appearances for Juve, made 23 Serie A appearances last season, but 19 of them were off the bench. At age 37 can his aging legs permit him to produce his wonderful skills in a league known for its pace and physicality? Ono, who was Asian Player of the Year in 2002, is known for his vision, technique and superb passing, but is now 33 and has a history of injury problems and may find that physicality a bit much for him too.
Which brings us to Heskey. As I'm a Liverpudlian (born and bred 200 metres from the Kop gates), and a Jets fan, I want him to be the best of the three and I think he can be. His critics say he didn't score enough goals, but in a 564 game Premier League career, he notched 117 at an average of 4.66 per game, which ain't too bad in my book!
At Liverpool his average was even better at 3.84 in 150 games, but it was his willingness to do the hard work and selfless off the ball running that endeared him to his teammates, amongst them Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler.
At 34, and still with plenty of mileage in his legs I expect him to be a big hit with his new colleagues and fans. And I think he'll score goals too. In our short 27 game regular season, I'll be surprised if he doesn't chip in with at least double figures and he'll be amongst the leaders in the assist table too.
And so to the opening round of the season. Adelaide United come to Hunter Stadium on Sunday straight from an arduous mid-week trip to Uzbekistan for the Asian Champions League quarter final second leg. One would have to think that the Reds will be physically and emotionally drained after their heartbreaking extra time loss to Bunyodkor, particularly as they played with ten men for most of that extra time, and were reduced to nine for the last couple of minutes too! It's also fair to say that they under-achieved last season, finishing 9th and they may need to change a few things tactically to be competitive again this season. They've signed a couple of Argentinians in the close season so that may give them a bit more creativity. One thing you know for sure with a John Kosmina coached team is that they won't ever die wondering! Their main strength appears to be the front line of Vidosic, Van Dijk and Djite, so the Jets new look back line will need to be at their best and supremely well organised to contain them.
What team will Gary van Egmond put out? Eleven new signings, including Heskey, are vying for a spot in the starting line-up, so it may take them a little time to get their combinations up to speed, but expect a fast-paced, pass and move game from the Jets. Heskey will give them a new dimension, someone who can hold the ball up and bring others into the game. This should mean that they will be able to play mainly in the opposition half of the field, and if the ball is lost, they'll look to win it back early deep in opposition territory. I'm tipping a big crowd will lift the Jets to a narrow victory in this one.
Friday night's Melbourne derby should be a cracker. New Victory coach, Ange Postecoglou has done what he did at Brisbane by sweeping out the old guard in an effort to return the glory days to the navy blues, while rookie Heart coach, John Aloisi probably wishes he could have had something a little less high profile than a derby for his first match in charge! I believe the Victory will have just be a bit too much for the Heart in this one.
Sydney FC travel to Wellington to tackle a Phoenix team that have made the “Cake Tin” fortress-like. They're expecting a bumper crowd too because of the Del Piero factor, but you can guarantee that 99.9 per cent of them will want to see a Phoenix win. The NZ'ers knocked Sydney out of the finals last season and have added to their firepower by signing former Jet, Jeremy Brockie, and Soloman Islands striker, Benjamin Totori. This one promises to be a rude introduction to the A-League for Del Piero, and I think he and his new team-mates will be happy to settle for a draw here.
Last season's Premiers, Central Coast Mariners travel down the road to the new boys, Western Sydney Wanderers, who could be nervous about the occasion and the challenge facing them. As my co-commentator, Aaron Kearney, likes to say about the Mariners, “The whole is greater than the sum of their parts” and you know that Graham Arnold will have them well organised again. They have lost a few players but made some canny signings, so expect them to challenge again this year. It will be interesting to see how the new team go and I think the adrenaline that will be flowing for their debut might just be enough for them to hold the Mariners and eke out a draw.
Which brings us to last year's Grand Final re-match, Perth Glory v Brisbane Roar. Glory, of course, still feel hard done by and will most definitely be up for it in their quest for some sort of revenge. They will be there or thereabouts again this season, having made some good signings in the shape of Michael Thwaite, Scott Jamieson and Nicky Ward following the departure of three players to the Jets. It will be interesting to see how, or if, Rado Vidosic has reshaped things following his elevation to Head Coach. The squad has remained relatively stable, and the word is he has given his players a bit more licence to improvise in crucial areas than Postecoglou did, so last season's champions and leading goal-scorers will still be a major attacking threat. I'm going to tip another draw here!
So, a great first week of the A-League looms, and a cracking season which promises to be one of the closest ever is ensured. Don't miss it!
Tune into ABC Newcastle 1233 to hear Aaron Kearney and Phil Dando's call of the Jets' game each week.