After they smashed their rivals and claimed a double of premiership and championship in last season’s Hyundai A-League, Kevin Muscat's Melbourne Victory will be the benchmark for every other team this time around. Can they go back-to-back?
The men in navy blue and white remained enviably consistent throughout a tightly contested regular season before proving too hot to handle in the finals, crushing local rivals Melbourne City and fierce foes Sydney FC to claim their third title.
They've lost captain Mark Milligan to Bani Yas but brought in Socceroo Oliver Bozanic as his replacement, and retained the bulk of their successful squad.
Can the Big V become the first team to retain their crown since Ange Postecoglou's Brisbane Roar in 2011-12?
THE BURNING QUESTIONS
Defence is still an area of concern for the reigning champions, who survived the departure of Adrian Leijer to the Chinese Super League in March but are likely to be without young centre-back Nick Ansell for the opening weeks of the new season. That leaves Leigh Broxham as a likely starter alongside Matthieu Delpierre, with little in the way of cover should either player go down.
LESSONS LEARNT FROM LAST SEASON
After Postecoglou's flirtation with a striker-less formation, the capture of traditional centre-forward Besart Berisha from Brisbane Roar proved to be the difference in elevating Victory from nearly men to ruthless winners. The Albanian marksman, a player opposition fans love to hate, will be crucial again as the men in navy blue and white look to retain their status as top dogs.
Victory will hope to add the FFA Cup to their trophy cabinet after advancing to the semi-finals at the expense of inaugural winners Adelaide United. They face the Reds again away from home in round one of the league season tomorrow night (October 9) before the hotly anticipated Melbourne Derby in Round 2 and a trip to Newy a week later.
Head coach Muscat and his football operations manager Paul Trimboli made a tough call to cut loose out-of-contract goalkeeper Nathan Coe during his rehabilitation from a back injury, bringing in Danny Vukovic from Perth Glory.
The new custodian boasts years of A-League experience and is one of the best shot-stoppers in the competition.
Hard to pin-point other than the fact that they have a testing ACL campaign at the back end of the season and, for the rest of the A-League, they are now the hunted and no longer the hunters.
Kevin Muscat used what was effectively a 4-2-3-1 formation last season, with Carl Valeri and Milligan anchoring the midfield, Kosta Barbarouses and Fahid Ben Khalfallah on the right and left wing respectively, Guilherme Finkler in the hole and Berisha up front.
The departure of Milligan to Bani Yas and the recruitment of Bozanic, who is arguably more versatile than the former skipper, could prompt a slight change in style, perhaps to more of a staggered 4-3-3, with Valeri deepest, Bozanic shuttling and Finkler retaining creative duties behind the forwards.
The AFC Champions League and its restrictions on the amount of eligible visa players could force Muscat to shuffle his pack between domestic and regional action.
If Thompson is sidelined for the majority of the campaign, 2015-16 will be Pain's time to shine. The Hong Kong-born wide attacker, who has already served notice of his considerable potential, won't get into Victory's strongest XI ahead of Barbarouses and Ben Khalfallah, but is likely to find himself starting far more often than last term and needs to seize his chance.
SOCIAL MEDIA STAR
New goalkeeper Vukovic is a prolific user of Twitter. Expect the ex-Perth Glory man to entertain and interact with the Victory faithful - not to mention rival fans - before, after and in between matches during the coming campaign.
With a clean bill of health and a dose of good fortune, Victory should be deserved favourites to finish first again and retain their crown. However, the loss of Thompson is a big blow before the league season has even begun. The likes of Sydney FC, Adelaide United and Melbourne City will all be waiting for Muscat's men to slip up.