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A-League Grand Final: 50-50 challenge

Australian A-League

Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory are preseason favourites as A-League kicks off

As the prospect of A-League expansion becomes top of mind for fans across Australia, the existing 10 teams are dreaming only of one thing: immediate success.

This season, which kicks off in Adelaide tonight, there is so much at stake for every club, and with new teams prepared to pounce on fresh licences soon, getting ahead of the pack has never been more important.

From top to bottom, each side will believe they have what it takes from the outset of the season.

That's certainly true of last season's Premiers Sydney FC. The Sky Blues have, of course, lost coach Graham Arnold to the national team, with former assistant Steve Corica now taking the reins.

The man known as "Bimbi" will need to find a new source of goals following the exits of Brazilian striker Bobo and Adrian Mierzejewski, and the potentially season-ending injury to newcomer Trent Buhagiar won't make that an easy task.

This will heap more pressure on the likes of Siem De Jong and Adam Le Fondre, who arrive in the harbour city with impressive resumes and high expectations. The form of midfield triumvirate Josh Brillante, Brandon O'Neill and Milos Ninkovic will therefore be crucial, but if they do fire, Sydney remain one of the teams to beat.

The same could be said of reigning champions Melbourne Victory, too.

Coach Kevin Muscat was handed the chequebook over the break and brought to Melbourne a pair of stars. Keisuke Honda and Ola Toivonen have come to the A-League fresh from the World Cup, making everyone in the league sit up and pay attention -- if they weren't already.

The duo -- who have over 160 international caps between them -- will be supported ably by James Troisi and Kosta Barbarouses, as well as newly-capped Socceroo Thomas Deng.

Looking beyond last season's silverware winners, there are a number of teams who have strengthened their squads and will have ideas of glory.

Perth, under the guidance of new coach Tony Popovic, will field a strong side that will be difficult to break down with the likes of Matthew Spiranovic, Jason Davidson and Ivan Franjic at the back. Incoming Spanish midfielder Juande could provide the spark they need to upset the more fancied teams on the east coast.

Brisbane Roar are another dark horse. Former Glory man Adam Taggart is a shrewd acquisition, as is midfielder Stefan Mauk. The duo arrive in Queensland heading into their prime and could energise a solid core group of players led by veterans Matt McKay and Brett Holman.

Melbourne City, though, will not be allowed to fly under the radar. Last season's breakout star Daniel Arzani made such an impact for the Socceroos at the World Cup that a move to Europe was inevitable, leaving a large hole for coach Warren Joyce to fill.

Though Bruno Fornaroli is expected to be a force once again, much of the attacking impetus will fall on newcomers Riley McGree -- of scorpion kick fame -- Michael O'Halloran and Frenchman Florin Berenguer. If success doesn't come soon, Joyce might find himself under severe scrutiny from the City Football Group.

Ernie Merrick at the Newcastle Jets will be eager to atone for last season's Grand Final defeat.

That will hinge on how players such as Jair and Mitch Austin settle into the squad. Much of the goalscoring responsibilities, at least in the early part of the season, will sit with them as Roy O'Donovan serves the final eight weeks of a lengthy suspension, while Joe Champness is on the sidelines with a fractured foot.

Both Adelaide and Western Sydney tasted some success in the FFA Cup during the preseason, with the Reds progressing all the way to the final -- to be played in South Australia at the end of this month. And both will need their key strikers -- Baba Diawara and Oriol Riera, respectively -- to find form to make an early run at the top of the table.

Playing four out of the first five games at home will no doubt help Adelaide's cause, as will the return of Craig Goodwin from two years spent in the Netherlands with Sparta Rotterdam.

The Wanderers, meanwhile, won't actually play at home all season, with their new stadium in Parramatta currently under construction. They'll need all the experience of coach Markus Babbel to navigate through this tricky period.

Central Coast have unexpectedly dominated preseason headlines thanks to their trial of Olympic sprint superstar Usain Bolt. Despite the Jamaican's brace in a friendly match last week, the real story for the Mariners has been their stealth signings of Tommy Oar and Ross McCormack, who make last season's wooden spooners a danger side for those with loftier goals.

And in what is shaping as the most evenly contested season yet, Wellington Phoenix are arguably the least fancied side in the A-League. Rookie coach Mark Rudan will be heavily reliant on Filip Kurto and Michael Kopczynski catching fire in order to return to the finals.

It's shaping as a game-defining season off the pitch in the A-League, and on the pitch it could be no different. Let the scramble to the top begin.


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