Ready to roll

Melbourne Victory coach Ernie Merrick knows his team are going to be the hunted rather than the hunters.

Melbourne Victory were the frontrunners for much of last season, along with rivals Adelaide United. In their final nine games in run to the Championship they lost just one game, a shock upset away to Perth Glory and were the most consistent performers throughout 2008/09. But as they come in to their final week of preparation for opening game of the new season, coach Ernie Merrick says they couldn-t be happier, something other teams should be worried about.

Without disruptions from international call-ups, Melbourne have had all players on board as they ready for their opening match at home against Central Coast Mariners on Thursday, and with pretty much the whole team at full fitness, they-re shaping to be a force to be reckoned with once more.

“It-s been our best pre-season preparations yet,” Merrick tells AFW. “We haven-t been interrupted by preparation for the World Cup, which happened Season Two; Season Three it was Asian Cup; and last season it was the Olympics.

“Everyone has been in training, except for maybe Carlos Hernandez, for the full 16 weeks and Carlos has caught up pretty well. So everyone is very fit and strong.

“This is the first pre-season that Archie (Thompson) has had with us in five years and I-ve never seen him look fitter. He-s always been away with national teams, so he looks a million dollars.”

Central Coast, their opponents for round one, didn-t display much in the way of flair during their Asian Champions League campaign and pre-season matches, but coming up against a side like Melbourne can be enough motivation for any visiting team to lift their game.

Merrick is well aware Victory will be viewed as the team to beat. Do they feel they-re coming in to this season with a target on their back?

“Not particularly. Fortunately it-s an enlarged competition with two new teams, a 27-round phase of home-and-away, before a six-team finals,” he says.

“There-s no doubt we-re going to be the hunted rather than the hunters, but there-s so many teams (that have) recruited so well that the standard of the league is going to go up and everyone will realise you just can-t knock off one team.

“Best of all, the two new teams has helped the media promote the game and one has two quite humble, understated gentlemen called Clive Palmer and Miron Bleiberg that have done such a great job that we-ve (Melbourne) flown under the radar.”

For other Hyundai A-League sides the hunger for another Championship or the chance of a maiden one will serve as their driving force, but Melbourne need to take a different approach. Last season-s clean sweep saw them collect them the Pre-Season Cup, Premiers Plate and Championship to their trophy cabinet, so another level is needed if they are to go back-to-back with nine other teams breathing down their neck.

Typically, the reigning champions have struggled to maintain the following season - Melbourne themselves falling foul of that after season two - but taking their eye off the prize isn-t something Victory make a habit of and they-re ready to take it all the way again.

“Preparations have been very intense,” Merrick says. “We-ve got a 22-man squad, so we-ve now got competition for every spot in the team and we-ve got a leadership group - lead by our captain who-s re-signed for three years, Kevin Muscat - who are intent on making sure everyone strives for the next level. So there-s certainly no complacency at Melbourne Victory.

“It-s always tough to back up such a great season… and I-ve no doubt it-s going to bring great challenges, but I think we-re well prepared to have a go at it and give it our best shot.

“The squad has set themselves outcome goals - the first outcome is to get to the finals - and process goals; what they aim to do well on the field, and we-re going to measure those and that-s what we-ll be working on.”

Merrick says the few new faces in the team also add freshness to the side. Thai international defender Surat Sukha comes in to the team, while Glen Moss takes over in goals from Michael Theoklitos who accepted a two-year contract with English League One side Norwich City.

There are some young faces in the side too, with youth league captain Matthew Theodore joining the first squad as well as Football Superstar winner Luke Pilkington training with the squad and playing some practice matches.

Interestingly, Merrick believes Pilkington has settled so well with the side since taking out the competition he wouldn-t be surprised if he sees some first team football before the season is out.

But what about the season itself? Who are the biggest threats to the champs?

“Can-t pick it,” Merrick says. “Too many teams have recruited too well, whether that be coaches or players… There-s just too many good teams in this league and there-s two new teams we haven-t seen yet in Fury and Gold Coast. I can-t pick it and that-s the way the league should be.”

And their Round One opponents rank among them.

“It-ll be a tough one, but we-re ready to go.”

This article appeared in the First Issue of Australian Football Weekly (AFW) for the Hyundai A-League 2009/10 season. Australian Football Weekly, on sale at every Hyundai A-League game for $5.