Sydney stamp mark on A-League
A rejuvenated Sydney FC were the big winners of the A-League season, as the club from Australia’s largest city narrowly secured the double thanks to a penalty shoot-out win over Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final. Both teams missed their respective star strikers in the decider, with John Aloisi absent for Sydney with a hamstring complaint, while the Victory’s Archie Thompson was forced off in the opening minutes with a knee injury that has ended his 2010 FIFA World Cup™ hopes.
The Sydneysiders under Czech coach Vitezslav Lavicka were a club transformed after several seasons of underachievement. A disciplined and pragmatic approach from the former Sparta Prague boss brought about steady improvement over the course of a campaign that witnessed them overhaul their southern rivals on the final day of the regular season to claim the premiership. Sydney then inflicted further pain on Melbourne with the Grand Final win to clinch the A-League championship.
It was a rare season of disappointment for the Victory, who had won two of the previous three A-League crowns. Some solace for Australia’s best-supported club was provided by earning the second AFC Champions League berth for 2011.
With so many Australian players plying their trade overseas, A-League clubs found significant success through the judicious acquisition of some impressive foreign talent. More so than any other A-League season, the imported players had a major effect, highlighted by Melbourne Victory’s Costa Rican international Carlos Hernandez. The A-League’s biggest-ever transfer fee was paid out for the 27-year-old, who repaid the club’s faith with 12 goals and performances that made him a worthy winner of the league’s Player of the Year award.
The A-League’s top four goalscorers were all imports, including New Zealand international Shane Smeltz, who blitzed the field with 19 goals for Gold Coast United. Smeltz’s goal return left him seven clear of his nearest challenger and earned him the top scorer crown for a second successive season. Joint-second in the scoring stakes alongside Hernandez was Barbados international Paul Ifill, who replaced Smeltz at the Phoenix during the off-season.
The most high-profile international player was undoubtedly former Liverpool and England striker Robbie Fowler, who ensured the turnstiles were clicking both home and away with his North Queensland Fury outfit. Fowler scored a number of spectacular strikes among his tally of nine goals in what was an impressive return given his team's struggles.
Kiwis break new ground
A miraculous year for New Zealand football, and indeed for Ricki Herbert, continued with Wellington Phoenix becoming the first Kiwi side to make the finals thanks to a fourth-placed finish. Three months after leading the All Whites to qualification for South Africa 2010, Herbert enjoyed more breakthrough success in his other role as coach of New Zealand’s only professional club. With up to half-a-dozen All Whites in their ranks, the Phoenix concluded the season in front a record domestic crowd, only falling one match short of the Grand Final.
Also enjoying a positive season after several years of heartache were Perth Glory who, under former Rangers and Feyenoord striker Dave Mitchell, reached the A-League finals for the first time. With a trio of Socceroo recruits in Mile Sterjovski, Chris Coyne and Jacob Burns, Perth enjoyed good home form as the club seeks the status it enjoyed nearly a decade ago when it was the nation’s most successful club.
Bucking the trend of Australian players heading offshore was Jason Culina who, despite being in the prime of his career and enjoying a first team position at PSV Eindhoven, elected to return home and join Gold Coast United. Along with North Queensland, Gold Coast were making their debut in the newly expanded ten-team competition. Thanks in part to the combination of Smeltz and Culina, United enjoyed a successful inaugural campaign and were in the hunt for the premiership until the penultimate round of matches.
At the other end of the ledger, though only missing the finals by five points, were Adelaide United, who finished last for the first time. It was a surprise fall from grace for the 2008 AFC Champions League finalists, but Aurelio Vidmar’s charges have since commenced their continental campaign with a perfect start after two matches. Two clubs aiming for a fresh start will commence next term mentored by coaches with international experience. Brisbane Roar will have long-serving Australia youth coach Ange Postecoglou at the helm, while former Socceroo coach Graham Arnold will attempt to ensure the Central Coast Mariners enjoy smoother sailing.