Merrick: We're underdogs

He held a straight face as he said it, but Melbourne coach Ernie Merrick genuinely believes the defending champions are not worthy of the favourites tag heading into the fifth season of the Hyundai A-League.

He held a straight face as he said it, but Melbourne coach Ernie Merrick genuinely believes the defending champions are not worthy of the favourites tag heading into the fifth season of the Hyundai A-League.

Not without some justification, Merrick pointed out the majority of clubs had significantly improved their playing rosters over the off-season while Victory have largely kept faith with the squad that claimed the 2009/10 season.

And that, according to the pragmatic Melbourne gaffer, makes this the most open competition on record.

"Because of signings like (North Queensland's) Robbie Fowler and three Socceroos at Perth and Gold Coast telling everyone how well they are going to look, we've virtually flown under the radar," Merrick said at Monday's season launch in Sydney.

"I think it's good that you guys from the media focus on Robbie Fowler and Jason Culina and all these boys because they are all new and fresh."

"You don-t need to talk to someone like myself."

"We'll never be underdogs but I quite like us getting on with our business without being all over the media until it counts."

"It's not that we haven-t been going about our business; we just haven-t been in the national media as much."

But while Merrick rejected talk Victory will again be the team to beat, the majority of his coaching brethren weren't buying it.

Told Merrick was attempting to paint Melbourne as a darkhorse rather than one of the front-runners, Perth coach David Mitchell quipped: "The only thing dark about Melbourne Victory is their strip."

"Melbourne will be there or thereabouts. They are definitely one of the teams to beat"

North Queensland coach Ian Ferguson was another not falling for Merrick's trap.

"Melbourne have been consistent over the years and they will be up there again," he declared.

"They have a really good squad with plenty of depth. They are going to be hard to beat."

Asked to nominate his favourites for the title, Central Coast boss Lawrie McKinna said without hesitation: "I think Melbourne (because) of their consistency. They have basically the same playing squad with a couple of additions."

"They have been stable for four years and for two years they have been the most successful."

"Ernie doesn't like to blow his own trumpet. He likes to keep it quiet but he's got a good team and they will deservedly be the favourites again."

While he was keen to talk up his rivals, Merrick was prepared to concede Melbourne would be the benchmark for other teams to judge themselves by.

But he is not prepared to predict just which club will emerge as Victory's greatest threat.

"We're going to be the team that's hunted rather than the hunters," Merrick said.

"But I can-t pick who will be up there. Gold Coast are a very good team, Perth have signed a lot of quality players, Sydney have gone 15 games unbeaten (in the pre-season) and they're going to be tough, Mariners are always a tough game."

"Teams in the past that might have shot themselves in the foot through lack of preparation and recruitment, they all seem to have stabilised."

"But all the talk means nothing. It's all about what you do on the field and it all goes from there."