A-League of their own
Melbourne Victory proved worthy champions by any measure when they were crowned Australia's premier team on Sunday at their Telstra Dome base. In the four-year history of the still fledgling A-League, the Victory became the first club to earn the title as Australia's best for a second time.
The tone was set early with the Melbournians claiming the pre-season competition, before setting the pace for much of the regular campaign. With a slight stumble towards season's end, the Victory still managed to claim the premiership by the narrowest of margins as they pipped rivals Adelaide United by virtue of goals scored. Tom Pondeljak's grand final winner over Adelaide saw Melbourne claim all three pieces of silverware on offer, an achievement that will prove hard to match.
Reigning champions Newcastle Jets and glamour club Sydney FC proved to be the major disappointments, while on the other side of the ledger, New Zealand's only representative Wellington Phoenix were in the hunt for a berth in the finals until the last round. Under national team coach Ricki Herbert, and helped by the goals of striker Shane Smeltz, the Kiwis fell agonisingly short of becoming the first New Zealand side to reach the finals of an Australian domestic competition.
Adelaide United was undoubtedly the other major success story of the season, with their journey through the AFC Asian Champions League far outstripping the efforts of any previous Australian side. The Reds became the first A-League club to reach the knockout stage, continuing to shock many onlookers by reaching the final after seeing off the challenge of tough Japanese outfit Kashima Antlers and the Rivaldo-inspired Uzbeks Bunyodkor.
Adelaide were outplayed over the two legs of the final by a classy performance from Japan's Gamba Osaka. They had however done enough to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008, and in the process became the first Australian club to achieve this feat through Asia. Wins over New Zealand's Waitakere United and Egypt's Al Ahly saw the Reds emulate Sydney FC's fifth-placed finish in the 2005 edition of the tournament.
Melbourne's run in Asian Champions League was halted by eventual winners Gamba in the group stage, but both Adelaide and the Victory will have another crack at the continent's best next year in the 2010 edition. The Australia representatives for the 2009 competition, which commences next week, are Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners, having claimed their spots through last year's A-League competition.
New names, old faces
The season was marked by the number of young players making their imprint, many of whom have earned the attention of Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek. Unlike previous seasons where players in the various youth national teams struggled for an A-League start, the young Australian talent has flourished, and in some instances became integral members of their respective teams.
Adelaide United's Scott Jamieson received dual rewards for a fine debut season with selection for Australia's Asian Cup qualifiers, before being named Australia's young player of the year. Sydney FC's wide midfielder Kofi Danning, Newcastle Jets defender Ben Kantarovski and Queensland Roar striker Mitch Nichols are among several other young stars who made their mark and could feature prominently for the Young Socceroos at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009.
Some of the best young talent continues to head offshore, notably teenage Socceroo James Holland, who joined Dutch Eredivisie leaders AZ, while fellow star-in-the-making Mile Jedinak became the latest Aussie to be welcomed at Turkish club Genclerbirligi.
At the other end of the spectrum, some veterans of the game turned in vintage performances befitting their experience and class. Most notable was defender Craig Moore who continues to shine for both club and country, with the 33-year-old the only domestic player to feature for the Socceroos in their recent FIFA World Cup™ qualifier in Japan.
Former Wolves and Millwall defender Kevin Muscat also played a key role as captain of Melbourne Victory, while former Rangers star Charlie Miller was named foreign player of the season. Australian goalkeeping legend Mark Bosnich made a brief but welcome return to the game after a six-year absence, turning in some memorable showings for the Mariners.