A-League back with a bang
© AFP

After a disappointing showing by their men's team at the Beijing Olympics, Australian football fans will be looking forward to following the ups and downs of the rapidly improving A-League instead. This season, the main competition will be sharing the stage with new youth and women's leagues, and the cosmopolitan nature of the competition will be enhanced by new arrivals from as far afield as Denmark, Ecuador, Côte d'Ivoire and Scotland.

For the first time since the league's inception, all eight teams will begin their campaigns under the tutelage of the same coaches who were in charge at the end of the previous season. This managerial continuity should ensure that the teams are well-drilled and cohesive in the season ahead.

The champions
In a depressingly familiar scenario for the Newcastle United Jets, many of their star performers from 2007/08 have sought new challenges elsewhere. Mark Bridge, scorer of the decisive goal in last season's grand final, has moved south to Sydney FC, as has midfield schemer Stuart Musialik, one of the most highly-rated young players in the country. Stalwart defender Andrew Durante has flown even further south, to Wellington.

Yet coach Gary van Egmond has good reason to be optimistic. Youngsters James Holland and Song Jin-Hyung showed excellent form towards the end of last year's campaign, and both were in fine fettle in the Jets' opening match, a 1-1 draw against 2007/08 premiers Central Coast Mariners. He can also call upon the services of last year's top scorer, Joel Griffiths, and two new foreign acquisitions: Ecuadorian striker Edmundo Zura, who has appeared seven times for his country, and Danish utility man Jesper Hakansson, who boasts considerable experience in a variety of European leagues.

The challengers
Last season's grand final runners-up, Lawrie McKinna's Central Coast Mariners, will again be hard to beat. Unlike most other clubs, the Mariners will rely solely on Australian players, although new striking recruit Dylan McAllister has been plucked from Norwegian side Lyn Oslo. Otherwise, the Central Coast faithful will look to their stars from last season, veteran striker Sasho Petrovski and midfield strongman Mile Jedinak.

Sydney FC, the competition's glamour team, have strongly reinforced their squad over the break. John Aloisi, an established Australian international, will lead the line for the 2005/06 champions, supported by two able youngsters in Mark Bridge and Alex Brosque. The spine of the team has been stiffened by the acquisition of Stuart Musialik and former Socceroo regular Simon Colosimo, from Newcastle and Perth respectively.

2006/07 champions Melbourne Victory have also been tipped for glory. They have added Costa Rican midfield organizer Jose Luis Lopez, who joins his compatriot Carlos Hernandez in the engine room. And coach Ernie Merrick was so impressed by Brazilian striker Ney Fabiano during Melbourne's Asian Champions League encounter with Chonburi that he decided to purchase the big frontman from the Thai outfit.

The outsiders
Always a force to be reckoned with in the A-League, Adelaide United have been weakened by the loss of attacking starlets Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns to Europe. They will also have to juggle their Asian commitments with their domestic campaign, after reaching the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League. Yet Brazilian frontman Cristiano, signed from Dutch club Willem II, should provide some bite up front this term.

Wellington Phoenix, the competition's New Zealand representatives, will be desperate to make an impact in the A-League after successive failures by Kiwi teams in the past. In an ironic twist, they have largely looked to their big brothers across the Tasman to achieve this aim, signing Aussies Andrew Durante, Adam Kwasnik and former Socceroo defender Jon McKain.

Biggest movers
If John Aloisi's move down the F3 freeway from the Central Coast to Sydney was the most publicised transfer of the off-season, Mark Bridge's move in a similar direction may yet prove the most important: the young livewire was one of the few Olyroos to leave China with his reputation enhanced.

Adelaide United have made two of the more shrewd signings of the winter, bringing central defender Sasa Ognenovski and midfielder Paul Reid to Hindmarsh Stadium. Ognenovski, a man-mountain in defence, was crucial to Queensland's success last season and has already shown his value to Adelaide in the Asian Champions League; Reid, a hero for Wollongong Wolves in the former national league, is a midfielder with intelligence, poise and a keen eye for goal.

Players to watch
Once again, the foreign recruits will attract much of the attention, and two of the competition's new Brazilians gave statements of intent in the opening round of matches. Perth Glory's prize acquisition, Amaral, a former Brazilian international, gave an assured performance in midfield despite his side's first-up loss to Adelaide. Melbourne's Ney Fabiano, despite missing a couple of chances against Sydney, gave every indication that his pace and strength would trouble opposition defences this year.

Another one to watch out for is Newcastle's Song Jin-Hyung. The diminutive Korea Republic youngster, who decided to come to Australia to add some physicality to his game, has a penchant for dazzling runs and neat interpassing in the final third.

Have your say
Can Newcastle upstage the big boys from Sydney and Melbourne again? Will Adelaide cope with their fixture crush? Can the Phoenix finally fly the New Zealand flag with pride?