A-League ready for lift-off

There is genuine cause for optimism about the forthcoming season of the Australian A-League. Champions Melbourne Victory will kick-off the fifth edition of the A-League on Thursday when they host Central Coast Mariners in front of an expected bumper crowd.

The newly expanded competition will see North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United join the fray in the first expansion since the league commenced in 2005. Though it is the new faces that are attracting as much attention with Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler being the most prominent. Also significant is the number of returning current Australian national team players headed by Jason Culina and Mile Sterjovski.

Last season saw attendances dip and television audiences plateau but the new ingredients have made for high expectations despite intense competition amongst Australia's busy sports market. Throw in massive interest for the Socceroos following their success in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and the portents are positive.

New faces
The two new clubs have hogged the off-season limelight and while Gold Coast seems set to be the glamour club, it is North Queensland that has claimed the biggest individual coup. The Fury will have perhaps the best credentialed player ever to appear in the A-League with Fowler leading their line.

Just two years after bidding Anfield an emotional farewell ‘God' will turn out for Australia's first national league team north of Brisbane in the nation's tropics. The 34-year-old Fowler has suffered a disrupted build-up after battling a groin injury but expectations remain high. "I feel great at the minute and when the season starts I'll be feeling as good as I have for a long time."

Less glamorous but an equally important cog will be Gold Coast's acquisition of Culina from PSV Eindhoven. At 29 Culina is at the height of his metronomic powers and is one of the first names on Pim Verbeek's Socceroo teamsheet. That Culina has many years left in his career sets him apart from the majority of returning national team players of recent seasons. Spearheading the Gold Coast attack will be New Zealand sharpshooter and reigning Oceania Player of the Year Shane Smeltz.

In the west Perth Glory, the giants of the former National Soccer League, have been reinvented by their coach, the former Feyenoord striker David Mitchell. Returning from lengthy stints in Europe is a triumvirate of current Socceroo squad members in Jacob Burns, Chris Coyne and most notably, Mile Sterjovski. Added to the potent mix is Serbian striker Branko Jelic who spent last year in the Bundesliga with Energie Cottbus.

Big guns
Once again Melbourne Victory will start favourites in the eyes of most having won two championships to date. Former Millwall and Rangers enforcer Kevin Muscat captains the side while Carlos Hernandez was a revelation at the tail end of last season and will be expected to unlock opposition defences, though upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifiers for Costa Rica will limit his early season appearances. Thai international defender Surat Sukha will also create his own niche when he debuts for the Victory as the league's first player from south-east Asia.

Despite winning the inaugural competition, Sydney FC has invariably flattered to deceive and last year missed the play-offs. The club from Australia's biggest city now have respected Czech coach Vitezslav Lavicka at the helm, and the former championship winner with Slovan Liberec has added international flavour with the new faces including Swiss defender Stephan Keller, Slovakian international midfielder Karol Kisel and Korean defender Byun Sung-Hwan.

Brisbane Roar are also expected to challenge for the title under former Socceroo mentor Frank Farina. Captain Craig Moore and former Rangers striker Charlie Miller top a list of wily veterans that last season combined well with the club's wealth of young talent. Australia's most recent AFC Champions League participants Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets, plus 2008 continental finalists Adelaide United and New Zealand representatives Wellington Phoenix are the remaining clubs, but each have suffered key personnel losses in the off-season.

The league is set to expand even further in 2010 with a second Melbourne team set to be included, playing out of a new stadium in the heart of the city. Consortiums from western Sydney and Canberra, the national capital, have also stated their interest.