There’s been an edge to pre-season at the Sky Blues’ Macquarie University HQ.
For the players that remain from last season, horrendous memories of that Hyundai A-League Grand Final capitulation in May to Melbourne Victory has ensured greater focus has been put into every session.
The loss still stings. But they have to move on.
Coach Graham Arnold wanted to restore the club to their former glories when he took over and the job is still to be done. The squad made great strides under his tutelage last season – which included a mid-season rebuild - but there must be even more progression now.
The bling is back in the Harbour City after last season, but can they add some substance to it by going all the way in season 11?
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THE BURNING QUESTIONS
· Can marquee man Filip Holosko fill the goal-scoring boots of the departed Marc Janko?
· Will Milos Ninkovic be their new Serbian superstar?
· How much will the grand final heartache drive the squad this season?
· Can youngster Andrew Hoole reach his full potential under Graham Arnold?
LESSONS LEARNT FROM LAST SEASON
Must have a more ruthless streak in defence, concentration lapses get punished.
Arnie must learn to adapt to Kevin Muscat's growing coaching nous at the champions Victory
The Sky Blues start with games against Melbourne City and the Jets but all eyes will be on round 3 and the derby at Allianz Stadium.
It’s the first of two derbies in front of their home fans for the season, with the one clash at ‘Wanderland’ coming on January 16.
Sydney FC has the luxury of limited travel in the first part of the season, only leaving NSW once in the first nine rounds.
A grand final replay against Victory at Allianz in round 6 will be a beauty while the club is also taking a home match to ANZ Stadium.
That clash will be against the Jets on January 9, the second time the Sky Blues have hosted a clash at the venue after the 2-1 win over Glory in 2012.
They finish the regular season with back-to-back home games against Adelaide United and Perth.
· There’s a saying you that ‘you need to lose one to win one’. The Sky Blues should have plenty of motivation and desire to go one better.
· Smart signings. Holosko and Ninkovic are imports with pedigree; Hoole, O’Neill and Woodcock are good young players while Simon and Anderson have points to prove after exiting the Mariners.
· Arnold’s experience, man-management and meticulous planning will ensure the players are well-prepared and on the same page.
· ACL commitments will make it a packed schedule towards the end of the season. Depth is sure to be tested.
· Loss of some key players. Petkovic, Janko, Ibini and Antonis were all key factors in their march to the grand final.
Arnold is one of the more flexible coaches in the Hyundai A-League. He often changes tactics and formations on the fly, depending on the state of the game and the opposition. That makes it a bit tricky to really know just how they are likely to set-up for the season.
You can be sure though his side will look to play football and back their passing, possession game.
That’s not to say they won’t change it up and go long if the situation calls for it. It’s the beauty of modern football and in Arnold’s world, you have to be adaptable.
For the most part though it will likely be a 4-2-3-1 formation for the Sky Blues. Vedran Janjetovic is the first-choice between the sticks while the defence should have a very similar look with Ryall, Faty, Jurman and Gersbach to provide a solid base.
With Milos Ninkovic on the ball in the ‘No.10’ role taking the place of Terry Antonis, Sydney will have plenty of creativity with Holosko, Brosque and Smeltz providing plenty of goal-threat.
The ingredients are there for another big season for the Sky Blues.
· Alex Gersbach: The left-back did exceptionally well in his opportunities last season and is only going to get better.
· Brandon O’Neill: An excellent pick-up from Perth Glory. A well-rounded midfielder who will learn immensely from the likes of Tavares and Dimitrijevic.
THE FINAL WORD
Improvement is on the mind of coach Arnold and that can only mean one thing. The Sky Blues will be desperate for some silverware and believe they have the squad to make that a reality.
There looks a good mix of youthful exuberance and big-game experience.
The big question marks surrounds their involvement in the ACL, which is going to take its toll right as the massive end-of-season matches are heating up, and how the new foreign players adapt to an Aussie summer and an Asian Champions League.
If they can stay relatively injury-free and fresh at the right time of the year, there might be something to celebrate come the end of the campaign. But with Victory only getting stronger, it’ll be even harder than last season to win the big one.