The sixth season of the Australian A-League will kick-off on Thursday aiming to build further upon an already solid foundation established since the league’s launch in 2005. The newest addition, Melbourne Heart, have generated much interest in the nation’s sporting capital while an influx of foreign players and a number of returning Socceroos make for a new look across many of the playing rosters. previews the upcoming season down under.

The champions
Despite some changes to their playing personnel, two-time champions Sydney FC enter the season with an air of stability, something which the club from the Harbour city are not typically known for. Wily Czech tactician Vitezslav Lavicka is the first Sydney coach to maintain the reins for the start of successive seasons with the team growing in confidence over the course of last campaign, turning in consistent and pragmatic performances. The Sky Blues will undoubtedly again be challenging strongly for silverware this term. Despite losing some experienced and talented performers, Sydney have strengthened with the acquisition of young defensive tyro Scott Jamieson, goalkeeper Liam Reddy, and, most notably, enigmatic playmaker Nick Carle. The former A-League player of the year, who only narrowly missed selection for Australia’s 2010 FIFA World Cup™ squad, returns to his home town after several season plying his trade in England, most recently with Crystal Palace.

The challengers
Melbourne Victory, the biggest and most successful club throughout the brief history of the A-League, will still be smarting from their penalty shoot-out defeat to arch-rivals Sydney in last year’s grand final. The Victory will not have to wait long to seek their revenge after being drawn against Sydney in their opener on Saturday. Consistently large crowds roared on the Victory last season, though it was a campaign which ultimately ended in disappointment with that last-day defeat and a disastrous AFC Champions League run. Victory boss Ernie Merrick is the only remaining coach from the league’s founding season, though he will have to make do without the fulcrum of his attack with Socceroos striker Archie Thompson likely to miss up to half of the season after a knee operation.

Perhaps an equally significant challenge to the Victory will come from across town where the league’s eleventh club, Melbourne Heart, have built up an imposing squad. Former Australia midfielder Josip Skoko will finally make his professional debut at home after 15 seasons in Europe, while the club have also recruited Socceroo internationals Simon Colosimo, Dean Heffernan, John Aloisi and South Africa 2010 representative Michael Beauchamp. The club's coaching personnel are equally impressive and is headed by former Netherlands striker John van't Schip, with legendary Danish winger Jesper Olsen as his assistant. The two Melbourne clubs will both play at a new purpose-built football stadium in the heart of the city.

The outsiders
Gold Coast United, the league’s self-styled glamour club, should again provide entertainment and interest wherever they play. Two of the league’s most effective players, Socceroo midfielder Jason Culina and prolific All Whites striker Shane Smeltz, ply their trade on the nation’s surfing showpiece, with the duo having been key performers for their respective national teams at South Africa 2010. Wellington Phoenix fell only one match short of the championship decider last season in what was a breakthrough year for the sole New Zealand representative. Ricki Herbert though will have a challenge maintaining that momentum despite Socceroo defender Jade North bolstering the ranks, plus the experience offered by All Whites stars Mark Paston, Leo Bertos and Tony Lochhead.

Biggest moves
The league’s biggest name, former Liverpool great Robbie Fowler, has crossed the continent to link with Perth Glory, coached by former Feyenoord and Rangers forward David Mitchell, with the still sharp striker having departed fledgling club North Queensland Fury. In other major moves, much interest will focus on the form of Socceroo returnees Skoko and Beauchamp at Melbourne Heart, and Carle at Sydney FC. The bar has been set high in recent years with the likes of Culina and Craig Moore providing quality service after long stints in Europe.

On the coaching front, the most notable new face is former Socceroo boss Graham Arnold who returns to the domestic scene with Central Coast Mariners after nearly a decade in the international arena. Former Australia youth coach Ange Postecoglou begins his first full season with Brisbane Roar, while other new faces include Dutchman Rini Coolen at Adelaide United and former Czech international Franz Straka at North Queensland.

Players to watch
Adelaide United attacker Matthew Leckie will trouble any defence in the league if he can maintain the form displayed earlier this year when he burst onto the scene during the Reds' AFC Champions League. Lightning pace and a willingness to take on defences make the 19-year-old prodigy a firm fan favourite. At the other end of the field cultured teenager Ben Kantarovski is well entrenched in the centre of the Newcastle Jets backline. The captain of the Australia Under-20 team is tipped for higher honours having already been called into the senior squad.

Have your say
Will Sydney FC retain their title, or will either of the Melbourne clubs claim glory? Or will there be a surprise winner of the A-League?