A-League preview: Sydney FC and Macarthur loom as title threats in disrupted campaign

Another A-League season has rolled around, and it's going to look a bit different in a number of ways. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney's northern beaches, and the various travel restrictions in place, the competition is going to be split into two 'conferences' for at least the first month.

Teams based outside NSW will play each other throughout January. And it's the same for the five teams permanently based within NSW – as well as the Wellington Phoenix, who have relocated to Wollongong for now. We run an eye over the "NSW conference" teams.

Can Sydney FC defend their A-League title?Credit:Getty

CENTRAL COAST MARINERS

Coach: Alen Stajcic
Last season: 11th
Ins: Daniel Bouman, Oliver Bozanic, Jaden Casella, Stefan Jankovic, Michal Janota, Stefan Nigro, Marco Urena
Outs: Milan Duric, Dylan Fox, Ziggy Gordon, Chris Harold, Jair, Michael McGlinchey, Jacob Melling, Jordan Murray, Tommy Oar, Samuel Silvera
Foreign legion: Stefan Janovic (Serbian, via OFK Beograd, Serbia), Michael Janota (Polish, via Al-Fateh, Saudi Arabia), Marco Urena (Costa Rican, via Gwangju FC, South Korea)
Key player: Daniel De Silva. We're still waiting for the one-time AS Roma prospect to live up to his potential. Wasn't bad last season, but also wasn't great. If it's ever going to happen, surely it must be now.
Rising star: Alou Kuol. The hype is big around this Shepparton product, who impressed in his handful of appearances last season and delivered a post-match interview full of swagger and confidence. The 19-year-old needs to show more of that, on and off the pitch.
Big question: Where is their improvement going to come from? It looks like a very lean squad on paper for the Mariners and comparing it with some of the A-League's bigger, better-financed teams, it's almost impossible to make a case for them to be playing finals football. Unless Alen Stajcic has hit the jackpot with his recruitment and his imports take the competition by storm – and his youngsters play out of their skin – it's hard to see this being anything other than another season of disappointment for the Coasties.
Prediction: Wooden spoon contenders. Yet again. Sorry Mariners fans, but we've seen this movie before and it doesn't end well for you.

MACARTHUR FC

Coach: Ante Milicic
Last season: N/A (first A-League season)
Foreign legion: Matt Derbyshire (English, via Omonia, Cyprus), Benat Etxebarria (Spanish, via Athletic Bilbao), Markel Susaeta (Spanish, via Melbourne City), Loic Puyo (French, via Red Star, France)
Key player: Mark Milligan. Tempting to go with Benat, a likely Johnny Warren contender, but he may need time to settle. Milligan won't – he knows what works in the A-League and what doesn't, and for a brand new club, he is the best imaginable person to be wearing the captain's armband.
Rising star: Jake Hollman. A product of the Sydney FC academy, the Sky Blues never wanted to let him go, and Bulls fans will get to see why this Young Socceroos midfielder is so highly rated. By all reports has had a cracking pre-season and is ready to take his chance.
Big question: How long will it take for everything to click? That's the mystery for any A-League expansion team, but history shows they have all been generally competitive in their first season. Macarthur have a sensational squad on paper but, as their coach has been at pains to point out, the A-League is a unique beast and not every player is able to adapt to the unique challenges around weather, travel and the hardness of Aussie pitches. We'll have to wait and see.
Prediction: Title contenders. This squad is just too good to fail. At the very least the Bulls should be in the top six but there's every reason to think they could finish higher, or even go all the way.

NEWCASTLE JETS

Coach: Craig Deans (interim)
Last season: 8th
Ins: Jack Duncan, Ramy Najjarine, Valentino Yuel
Outs: Abdiel Arroyo, James Donachie, Nick Fitzgerald, Bernie Ibini, Matthew Millar, Dimitri Petratos
Foreign legion: Roy O'Donovan (Irish, incumbent)
Key player: Steven Ugarkovic. Has made noises about wanting to leave the Jets — and to be honest, who could blame him — but is staying put for the time being. Newcastle need him. He’s one of the best midfielders in the competition and their metronome in the middle of the park.
Rising star: Valentino Yuel. Granted he's 26, but he's relatively new to professional football. Showed a few really exciting moments last season for Western United before injury halted his progress. If the Jets can keep him fit, he might be a much-needed spark for them out wide.
Big question: When will things settle off the field? With chairman Martin Lee having effectively abandoned the club, the Jets are in peril, and won’t install a new senior coach to replace the departed Carl Robinson or add any substantial reinforcements to their squad until another owner is in place. In the interim, they are treading water. It's less than ideal, but their pre-season results and performances have been rather encouraging in the circumstances.
Prediction: Wooden spoon contenders. No owner, no permanent coach, not much to be excited about in their squad, no great expectations, and nothing to suggest they will be anywhere other than the foot of the table.

SYDNEY FC

Coach: Steve Corica
Last season: 1st (grand final winners)
Ins: None
Outs: Adam Le Fondre, Marco Tilio
Foreign legion: Alex Baumjohann (German, incumbent), Milos Ninkovic (Serbian, incumbent)
Key player: Milos Ninkovic. Turned 36 on Christmas Day, but he's still got it. His movement, passing and close control can still unlock a press and make even the most stoic of defenders look like fools.
Rising star: Calem Nieuwenhof. Made his senior debut in the AFC Champions League but looked and moved like a seasoned pro, playing every minute of every game in the Doha hub and barely making a mistake. This kid has something about him, and looks ripe to become an A-League fixture.
Big question: Will Trent Buhagiar take his chance? Adam Le Fondre’s departure has left a hole up front worth 20 goals a season and Steve Corica is backing his fleet-footed Olyroo to pick up the majority of the slack. If Buhagiar can’t become a regular goal-scoring threat, it could be a big problem for the Sky Blues, who played nice football in their recent ACL campaign but struggled to put away their chances. That was either a cobweb-busting exercise, or a portent of things to come this season.
Prediction: Title contenders. Stability is king in the A-League and with only one key man from last season’s double-winning team no longer at the club, there’s every reason to believe Sydney FC will be near the top again.

WELLINGTON PHOENIX

Coach: Ufuk Talay
Last season: 3rd (lost in elimination final)
Ins: Tomer Hemed, Joshua Laws, Clayton Lewis, James McGarry, Mirza Muratovic, Matthew Ridenton
Outs: Liberato Cacace, Callan Elliot, Gary Hooper, Callum McCowatt, Walter Scott, Matti Steinmann, Steven Taylor, Brandon Wilson
Foreign legion: David Ball (English, incumbent), Ulises Davila (Mexican, incumbent), Tomer Hemed (Israeli, via Charlton Athletic)
Key player: Tomer Hemed. A former Premier League and La Liga striker, his goals-per-game ratio hasn't been great in the last couple of years, but appears to have the sort of pedigree that should set him apart in this competition. As ever with imports, though, you never know until you know.
Rising star: Cameron Devlin. Coming off his first full season of senior football, this tenacious 22-year-old does the brunt of the grunt work for the Phoenix in midfield. Looms as a huge player for Australia at Tokyo 2021, and beyond that for the Socceroos.
Big question: How will they cope with life on the road? Wellington are based in Wollongong for the foreseeable future, haven't played in their own city since March, and won't again until a trans-Tasman travel bubble is in place. The prospect of a full season away from New Zealand will be tough on players and staff, both mentally and emotionally. The longer it goes on, the harder it will be. Hopefully the Illawarra shows them some love and adopts them as their own team, but there's no place like home.
Prediction: Mid-table. The Phoenix have lost some key players this off-season, although that was also true 12 months ago and they seemed to cope fine. There's enough about this squad to get excited about, but not quite enough for much else.

WESTERN SYDNEY WANDERERS

Coach: Carl Robinson
Last season: 9th
Ins: Phillip Cancar, Graham Dorrans, Ziggy Gordon, Bernie Ibini, Anthony Lesiotis, Daniel Margush, James Troisi
Outs: Mitchell Duke, Matthew Jurman, Daniel Lopar, Radoslaw Majewski, Pirmin Schwegler, Nick Sullivan, Nicholas Suman
Foreign legion: Simon Cox (Irish, incumbent), Nicolai Muller (German, incumbent), Ziggy Gordon (Scottish, via Central Coast Mariners), Graham Dorrans (Scottish, via Dundee)
Key player: Keanu Baccus. The Olyroos star had serious interest from Danish club AGF Aarhus last summer but the Wanderers kept hold of him and will be grateful, because he was one of their best last campaign.
Rising star: Tate Russell. The 22-year-old defender appears to have impressed his new coach through the pre-season and the right wing-back position could be his to lose.
Big question: Will Daniel Margush hold up between the sticks? Daniel Lopar was huge for the Wanderers last season and leaves a big pair of boots – and gloves – for the untested 23-year-old to fill. Goalkeeper is the one area of Western Sydney's squad that looks thin and, while there are big raps on Margush, an Adelaide United product who spent part of last season with Perth Glory, it's been a while since we've seen a young custodian stand up in the A-League.
Prediction: Mid-table. A ruthless recruitment spree in recent weeks, coupled with Carl Robinson's expertise and energy, should bring the Wanderers back into immediate finals contention, but they still look a bit behind the competition's better teams.

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