Season 4 Club Previews - Part 2

Dave Cooper takes a look at the past two Champions Melbourne and Newcastle.

Melbourne Victory

Season 3 was always going to a let down for Victory after such an extraordinary Season 2, where they won the Premiers Plate and Champions double, which included a magnificent 6-0 win in the Hyundai A-League Grand Final. However I don-t think too many expected Melbourne to fall away quite as they did.

Funny thing was, they were unbeaten for the first seven games of season 3, but the first five were all draws and this came back to haunt them at season-s end. Playing catch up, they then didn-t win for eight matches, October and early December before making a late charge with three wins and a draw, to finish 5th, four points adrift of fourth place Queensland Roar.

Their was no respite however for Melbourne, with the fruits of their Season Two triumph waiting in the AFC Champions League. Ultimately though the challenge proved too great a hurdle, despite a very good first up win and Victory ended up second in the group, but some seven points behind runaway leaders Gamba Osaka.

The ‘off-season- recruiting started before the ACL had started, with Melbourne boys Tom Pondeljak (Central Coast) and Billy Celeski (Perth Glory) returning home. After the disappointments of the ACL and the previous season, coach Ernie Merrick, the only other inaugural coach still at the same club, moving quickly to fill some necessary holes. Pondeljak proved a straight swap for Adrian Caceres, who headed to the Mariners after the ACL, while Daniel Piorkowski moved overseas, Ljubo Milicevic-s unhappy stint was quickly shut, while Kaz Patafta decided his fortunes lied elsewhere after getting little first team action.

The capture of Michael Thwaite for a year on loan from his Swedish club, should prove a terrific buy, while Merrick also decided to go back to one of ACL rivals and snare Ney Fabiano from Thai club Chonburi. He came in for Leandro Love, who proved very disappointing, and if his ACL form can be carried into the Hyundai A-league then he also will be a good capture. However probably the biggest capture was that of another Costa Rican in Jose Luis Lopez, who signed from leading club Deportivo Saprissa and could prove the perfect foil for countrymen Carlos Hernandez in the middle of the park.

It-s these three signings that have many pundits predicting them as the team to beat this season and after capturing the Pre-Season Cup, a competition they have previously struggled in, their Championship credentials were only enhanced, especially with Archie Thompson, Leigh Broxham and Celeski away on Olympic team duty.

There is no doubting that Melbourne-s preferred starting eleven would be the envy of any coach in the competition, with Michael Theoklitos the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, national team defenders Rod Vargas and Thwaite at the back, captain Kevin Muscat and the likes of Danny Allsopp, Nick Ward, Celeski, the two Costa Rican-s and a host of other players that give the squad great depth.

With biggest crowds in the league by a country mile, the weight of expectation will be back on Melbourne to be back in the four and challenging for honours once again and without ACL disruptions, they should be up there.

Players In - Nathan Elasi, Billy Celeski (Perth Glory), Tom Pondeljak (Central Coast Mariners), Michael Thwaite (on loan from Brann Bergen, Norway), Ney Fabiano De Oliveira (Chonburi FC, Thailand), Jose Luis Lopez (Deportivo Saprissa, Costa Rica)

Players Out - Adrian Caceres (Central Coast Mariners), Ljubo Milicevic (released), Daniel Piorkowski (released), Kaz Patafta (Newcastle Jets), Leandro Love (released)

Newcastle Jets

The reigning Hyundai A-League Champions after they inflicted a 1-0 defeat on arch rivals Central Coast Mariners, in what was a red-letter day for the people of Newcastle, the regions first major success, where football in Australia first flourished at the turn of the 20th century.

Not too many predicted big things from the Jets after losing the likes of Nick Carle, Vaughan Coveny, Paul Okon and Milton Rodrigues. But, despite some on-field distractions with marquee signing Mario Jardel, Gary Van Egmond did a superb job, to guide the Jets within a goal of the Premiers Plate.

Like Melbourne they had a funny start, three draws interspersed with two wins before their first loss. Only two wins in the months of November and December, saw their finals hopes looking very shaky, but 2008 saw their fortunes change, with three straight wins, including a 2-1 win over the Mariners bringing them level on points with their rivals, but behind on goal difference.

The finals saw the two arch rivals line in the Major Semi and the Jets looked like they would be first in the Grand Final after a 2-0 win at home. But the Mariners staged a remarkable comeback to win the return 3-0. A nail-biting 3-2 win in the Preliminary Final earned them a re-match with the Mariners in the Grand Final and it was Mark Bridge-s second half goal that saw the Jets triumph.

For all the joy of winning the grand final however, the off-season has proved somewhat of a disappointment in many respects. While most fans were glad to see the back of Jardel and the disappointing fellow imports Denni and Jorge Drovandi, the loss of Olympic team players Bridge and Stuart Musialik to Sydney FC cut deep. Grand Final Joe Marston Medal winner Andrew Durante, plus young midfielder Troy Hearfield also went for better offers at Wellington Phoenix and suddenly the Championship winning side was being cut to shreds and the chance captain Jade North might follow. Player of the Year Joel Griffiths remained, along with his brother Adam, as Van Egmond looked overseas and domestically to find suitable replacements.

Van Egmond is big on youth and so in came Kaz Patafta from Melbourne and Shaun Ontong from Adelaide, plus one of the countries hottest young strikers in Jason Naidovski from the AIS.

But the big name recruits however were not happening as overseas trialists came and went. That was until early July, when fringe Danish international Jesper Hakansson was signed after impressing Van Egmond and then the announcement of marquee signing, Ecuadorian international striker Edmundo Zura for a season.

The verdict is still out on Zura as he did not play in the Pre-Season and is in doubt for the opening game of the season, although Hakansson has impressed his Jets teammates during the Pre-Season Cup.

Van Egmond still has plenty of talent at his disposal with the Griffiths boys, Matt Thompson, Adam D-Apuzzo, Tarek Elrich and fringe National team keeper Ante Covic in goals, plus two of the best young prospects in the league in James Holland and Korean Jin-Hyung Song, who looks a special player and could be a standout this season. Biggest question mark will be depth and if North does head overseas after the Olympics as is rumoured then the Jets backline will be stretched.

Previous Champions have struggled to back up the following season, so can Newcastle break the mould? Only time will tell.

Players In - Jason Naidovski (2 years - AIS), Shaun Ontong (2 years - Adelaide United), Kaz Patafta (Melbourne Victory), Ben Kantarovski (NNSW), Autun Kovacic (Richmond, VIC), Jesper Hakansson (2 years - Lyngby BK, Denmark), Edmundo Zura (Sporting Club Imbabura, Ecuador)

Players Out - Andrew Durante (Wellington Phoenix), Mark Bridge (Sydney FC), Mario Jardel (released), Jorge Drovandi (released), Steve Eagleton (retired), Scott Tunbridge (released), Denni (released), Stuart Musialik (Sydney FC), Troy Hearfield (Wellington Phoenix), Paul Kohler (released), Craig Deans (retired)