<
>

A-League returns: What you missed, what to look for, what to expect

play
Wade challenges Starting XI: 'Make something happen' (1:16)

Former Socceroos captain Paul Wade wants to believe in the FFA Starting XI's ability to make change, but needs to see action. (1:16)

"I'm looking forward to people actually talking about football in a positive way."

Though Melbourne Victory stalwart Leigh Broxham may have set his expectations just a bit high when it comes to the discourse surrounding the A-League -- this is Australian football after all, where pessimistic fatalism seems a defining personality trait -- Friday night's contest between Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix will nonetheless provide fans with a welcome opportunity to actually talk about what happens on the pitch.

- Inside the A-League's foiled escape from Victoria
- Octa-gone! Adelaide keeper quits soccer to pursue MMA dream
- Bruce Djite & Kyah Simon: Australia is not immune to racism

Since the A-League was suspended, the game has appeared to be stumbling from one crisis to another; yanking itself away from the ledge only to discover that their momentum was now dragging it towards another, somehow higher, precipice.

But now, 116 days since Newcastle Jets and Melbourne City players macabrely went about their business knowing full well that the decision to suspend the league had already been made, two title-challengers in Sydney and the Nix will get us going once again.

Allez les A-League!

Jump to: What went wrong? | What went right? | What has changed? | What about the teams? | What about the players? | Who will win?

Existential crisis!? What happened during the break?

Oh boy, how long have you got?

Soon after the game entered a state of coronavirus-enforced hibernation, a wave of stand-downs were felt across its every level of football in Australia, and individual moves by A-League clubs to follow led to a showdown between themselves and Professional Footballers Australia, with the union threatening legal action against the clubs that furloughed players. Notwithstanding that a CBA extension was eventually agreed between stakeholders, the latent disdain and seemingly inevitable contraction awaiting the Australian economy in the future almost certainly means that forthcoming negotiations will most likely be spiteful affairs.

Potentially more cataclysmic were attempts by long-time A-League broadcaster Fox Sports to renegotiate its AU$57.6 million-per-year deal with the FFA. Long perturbed by the A-League's flagging ratings and frustrating inertia -- with ESPN's Ante Jukic previously noting that a divorce was inevitable -- the broadcaster seemed content to walk away should its demands not be met, with reports circulating that offers as paltry as $11m a year were made.

With Fox cast as machinating, mustachioed villains of the piece after the FFA, A-League clubs and PFA united to declare that the league's resumption hinged upon the broadcasters' willingness to deal, the possibility that the 2019-20 season would have to re-commence without a TV deal, or not at all, became a very real possibility.

At the 11th hour, however, a bargain was struck between the parties that would see this season -- and the next -- televised, as well as Socceroos and Matildas games (but not the FFA Cup).

Such is the nature of the A-League's current funding model, the sudden disappearance of broadcasting dollars -- also the pre-eminent reason why the league is resuming instead of being cancelled -- would have amounted to a death blow for the competition.

As a cherry on the sundae, just a week before everything was going to kick off again, a spike in COVID-19 cases in Melbourne shut Victoria's borders and forced Melbourne City, Melbourne Victory and Western United to try to attempt to evacuate the state not once, not twice, but three times in order to finish the season.

play
2:55

Viduka: Neill sulked & undermined at the '07 Asian Cup

Thirteen years on, the former Socceroos skipper shares the reality of dissent and bitterness that plagued Australia's disastrous Asian Cup debut.

Wow... did anything good happen?

Of course. Despite all the doom and gloom, the 2019-20 season is set to resume and -- barring any unforeseen disaster -- conclude. The new deal secured with Fox Sports gives the game time to plan a better future and figure out a way in which it can be run within its means as a fit for purpose endeavour.

And biggest of all, the 2023 Women's World Cup is on its way Down Under, promising to provide a major shot in the arm not only to women's and girl's football but the game as a whole.

Ok, onto the games. What's changed?

COVID-19 has left an inalienable mark on the 2019-20 season, as it has on all leagues around the world, but, thankfully, unlike other competitions and sports, it is not a fait accompli that that more players and staff will test positive.

Though primarily driven by necessity, aside from a singular game in Queensland's Gold Coast, all remaining fixtures are set to be played in NSW -- with every side from outside the state ensconced in hubs until their campaigns are complete. In theory, this will isolate them from a potentially infectious outside world and make it easier to follow an austere set of rules surrounding infection control mandated by the league. Players from the NSW clubs, though able to continue living at home, will also be operating under strict instructions regarding their conduct.

Should the situation in NSW deteriorate, head of the A-League Greg O'Rourke and league officials have begun to formulate a back-up scenario that would see the competition relocated to Queensland as soon as Saturday if required.

"The second option we're now looking at is to relocate all 11 teams, one of them is there already, but the other 10 A-league teams into Queensland," he said on Tuesday.

"We have today spoken to stadia in Queensland, we have today spoken to accommodation options and also around securing training venues for those teams. That is also what we are looking at as our back-up plan."

The likelihood that this plan may need to be put into action became clearer on Wednesday morning when the AFL, generally the most well-run of Australia's major sports, was revealed to be moving its operations out of NSW and into the Sunshine State forthwith.

Initially, fans will be allowed into stadia in limited numbers as play resumes, hopefully avoiding some of the disconcertingly soulless scenes that have played out in other codes and leagues around the world. Their presence, though, will be dependent upon allowances from health authorities. This could serve as an added bonus to the NSW teams -- or Brisbane Roar if the competition moves to Queensland -- with an analysis of post-COVID-19 Bundesliga results by the New York Times' Rory Smith revealing the significant boost fans can give club's results, and the void they leave in their absence.

It's believed teams will be able to utilise IFAB's edict that they can use up to five substitutes during a game -- opening up intriguing possibilities for strategy as well as rewarding team's depth. Unsurprisingly, given that he's one of the league's more tactically adept coaches, Western United boss Mark Rudan has already highlighted his intention to utilise this new rule to its full effect.

"For me, the biggest one is the five-substitution rule. We've made it very clear to the players that there will be decisions made based on strategy and planning," Rudan said earlier this month.

Confusion, however, remains around the fate of the much-maligned VAR. Previous statement's by O'Rourke have committed the A-League to its continued usage throughout the season but a report by the Age, published less than 48-hours ahead of resumption, cast doubt on this. The paper published leaked emails to officials that stated the technology would be suspended until at least the finals campaign.

What about with the teams? There's been coaching changes?

A triumvirate of them: Robbie Fowler left the Roar, Gertjan Verbeek departed Adelaide United and Carlos Salvachua jetted out of Melbourne Victory.

The biggest name to arrive in Australian football in a number of years, Fowler's tenure is one that is difficult to judge -- it's possible to build differing, and not necessarily conflicting, narratives of the nine circles of his reign.

Roar's brand of attritional football was certainly not built around being aesthetically pleasing and key midseason addition Scott McDonald came to carry an oversized burden for an attack that generally functioned far better without the ball than with it. But, nonetheless, it did get some level of results; the Roar are sitting in fourth as the competition resumes under new boss Warren Moon and, just a year removed from conceding a competition record 71 goals in 27 games, having shipped just 24 in 22 this season.

Whereas it's impossible to fully ascertain as an outsider, Fowler's style also appeared to be built on an internal comradery forged around damnation of hostile outsiders. The Liverpool legend's argument with Rudan following the Roar's round 10 defeat and numerous defences of his club on social media -- some not befitting a figure of his stature -- seemingly demonstrating a desire to create an "us against the world" mentality amongst his charges.

But can a siege mentality survive when the general goes missing in action?

- A-League Tipping: Start a competition, challenge your friends

In South Australia, it appears as though a perennially revved engine has blown -- even if Verbeek's departure and replacement with interim Carl Veart was ultimately COVID-19 related. The Reds were an all-or-nothing side under the command of the Dutchman, yet to record a single draw so far in the 2019-20 season. On their day, Adelaide were capable of blowing any side in the competition out of the water. Yet, their inability to go to any gear other than fifth was as much a curse as a blessing.

Melbourne Victory, too, will be operating with a new figure in the dugout; Salvachua -- himself an interim after the club sacked Marco Kurz after just 14 competitive fixtures -- replaced by Grant Brebner after the former opted to return to Europe to serve as an assistant to Kevin Muscat at Belgian side Sint-Truiden.

Though one could declare that the loss of one coach may be regarded as a misfortune but to lose both looks like carelessness, in truth the departure of Salvachua is unlikely to dampen the fortunes of Victory. Second-bottom on the table coming into the resumption, the sugar hit that came with the Spaniard's appointment had long since worn off.

If anything, Brebner, having already indicated he's not a candidate for the role next season, may have greater licence to experiment and play the kids if he's not using Victory's five fixtures as an audition.

What about players?

Ola Toivonen is the biggest name to depart the league, with the Sweden international opting to return to Europe rather than see out the season.

Though he had quite clearly mentally checked out long before he did so in body, Robbie Kruse's injury issues meant the Swede had been Victory's most important attacking player this season and his club's inability to utilise him properly will go down as a major missed opportunity.

Still contracted for next season, Perth Glory skipper Diego Castro, too, will not be a part of the remainder of the season, with the Spaniard opting to remain with family rather than risk exposure to COVID-19.

Though Castro's decision is a disappointing one for Glory fans, it's more than understandable and, in truth, with the long-term impact of COVID-19 infection still unknown and allowances specifically made in the CBA extension to allow for opt-outs, it's somewhat surprising that so few players have joined the exodus from the league.

Whereas a desire to finish that which has been started and a sense of duty no doubt plays a factor -- a level of commitment and courage worthy of praise -- the sheer number of players heading to NSW casts light on just how much being a footballer can subsume a person's identity.

How many player's sense of self, one that would seemingly be under threat should they not take the field, is built around their existence as a professional footballer? How much of this had weighed on minds, consciously or subconsciously, in making a decision to play?

Who is going to win it all?

If 2019-20 was a normal season and we hadn't just undergone a four-month intermission you'd probably say that Sydney FC were the prohibitive favourites; eight points clear at the tail end of the season and possessing a mentally strong, veteran squad.

Wellington Phoenix likely present their biggest threats -- Cameron Devlin and Matti Steinmann serving as the perfect base for an exciting attack spearheaded by Johnny Warren Medalist contender Ulises Davila. Melbourne City are another possible challenger -- albeit one whose strengths don't mesh well with beating Sydney.

Perth Glory, as long as they scored first, had loomed as another potential dark horse, but with the withdrawal of Castro set to compound the absence of the injured Chris Ikonomidis, the attacking burden on Bruno Fornaroli may prove too much to carry.

Of course, this isn't exactly a normal A-League season, and who knows what sort of chaos could emerge in the truncated run home and finals campaign.

Could Sydney FC's mental strength, which has allowed them to power through and win games they never really had any right to win this season, pick right up where it left off?

Is the six games remaining for the likes of Sydney, Western United or Perth a hindrance? Or does the ability to find form before finals serve as a boost and leave someone like City, who have just three games remaining, behind the eight-ball? Does the topsy-turvy campaign allow for a coach like Rudan, Tony Popovic or Ufuk Talay to pull a rabbit out of a hat? Is this the type of season where a rank outsider like Western Sydney Wanderers or Newcastle Jets catch fire at the right time and win it all?

In the end, we can't know for sure -- 2020 has made fools of anyone that's attempted to predict anything.