The Australian A-League season kicks off on Friday, with the Central Coast Mariners hoping to atone for their 1-0 loss against defending champions the Newcastle Jets in last year's controversial playoff.
The timing has raised a few eyebrows as the opening two rounds of the 2008/09 A-League clash with the Beijing Olympics. But all eight sides will at least be at close to full strength, with Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek electing to only use overseas-based players for his team's friendly against South Africa on 19 August in London.
Despite that decision, Verbeek is sure to keep a close eye on a number of Socceroos hopefuls in the A-League, as he looks to negotiate a tough FIFA World Cup™ qualifying group that also includes Japan, Bahrain, Qatar and Uzbekistan.
The 21-round qualifying season opens with the grand final rematch between the Jets and the Mariners in Newcastle, but the blockbuster between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory in Sydney on Saturday is shaping up as the highlight of the opening weekend.
Sydney, led by star recruit and former Socceroos favourite John Aloisi, are tipped to be the side to beat this season, but Melbourne, the 2006/07 champions, are certain to mount a strong challenge after recruiting strongly during the off-season.
Sunday's matches see Adelaide United host Perth Glory and Wellington Phoenix at home against Queensland Roar.
The Mariners are the only team not boasting an overseas player and there are some well-credentialled imports joining the league, which is expected to be expanded to 10 teams next year. Heading that list is the Glory's 35-year-old Brazilian Amaral, who played 31 times for his country and is expected to provide some much-needed midfield bite for one of the competition's outsiders. The Glory also signed well-travelled Ivory Coast striker Eugene Dadi.
Adelaide are expected to bounce back as strong contenders after disappointing last season and have picked up two Brazilians in Alemao and Cristiano. Two of their compatriots, midfielder Diego and left-back Cassio, will be turning out for Adelaide again after an impressive 2007/08 campaign.
The Victory snared Brazilian Ney Fabiano and Costa Rican Jose Luis Lopez, who is expected to have a big impact after being a junior star in his homeland. Melbourne will also have great expectations for Socceroos defender Michael Thwaite, who returns to the A-League from Norway.
Striker and Ecuadorian international Edmundo Zura, 25, was Newcastle's major overseas signing, but the Jets will also expect much of Denmark's Jesper Hakansson.
Queensland Roar, coached by former Socceroos mentor Frank Farina, recruited 32-year-old former Scotland, Glasgow Rangers and Dundee United midfielder Charlie Miller.
The A-League season, including finals, runs until late February.