It's that time of year again.... Now that the sun has set on our winter footballing codes, we welcome another instalment of the rolling juggernaut that is the Hyundai A-League.
2015/16 was full of surprises. Adelaide United came from outside the top 6 at the half-way mark of the year to claim their first ever Championship. In a topsy-turvy season, title-holders Melbourne Victory started well but eventually crashed down to sixth, whilst their Grand Final opponents from the year before, Sydney FC, failed to make the finals altogether. Western Sydney Wanderers went from second-last to second in a year of resurgence and Melbourne City continued their consistent improvement with their best finish to date in fourth.
Look over the final standings from year to year and you'll begin to understand why Australian football is so exciting. With salary caps and restrictions on marquee acquisitions, it is much harder for good teams to stay at the top of the pile, creating a far more even and unpredictable competition than the ones we see in Europe. As a result, it is tough for anyone to truly know what will happen from one season to the next... Despite this, we look forward to 2016/17 and attempt to decipher who will have a fruitful campaign this time around...
2015/16 final position: 1st (Champions)
Since that glorious day on May 1, not much has gone right for the defending champs. They were bundled out of the FFA Cup by minnows Redlands, and have suffered key injuries to Marcelo Carrusca and Jordan Elsey. Combine that with multiple list changes and the early results we've seen so far look ominous. It's hard to stay at the pointy end, and time will tell whether the Reds can repeat last year's efforts and turn it around. With AFC Champions League fixtures to contend with, new Adelaide recruits will need to gel pretty quickly if they are to have any success this time around.
The one to watch: Ryan Kitto
2015/16 final position: 3rd
The 'Orange Army' have been a staple at the top of the A-League standings for a while now, and judging by their off-field dealings it's easy to tell why. Once again they have had to wave goodbye to key talent, but have plastered the gaps with savvy additions. Danish midfielder Thomas Kristensen enters the fold to replace Corona, while capped Socceroo Brett Holman has signed on to add fire power. With John Aloisi at the helm, the Roar will look to improve on last year's efforts, where they were knocked out in a dramatic extra time shoot-out by the Wanderers.
The one to watch: Jamie Maclaren
Central Coast Mariners
2015/16 final position: 10th
Last season was definitely one to forget for the Mariners. Struggling for the majority of the campaign, the boys from Gosford spent more than half the season at the very bottom of the table, where they would finish with only three wins. With Paul Okon coming in to resurrect their fortunes, there seemingly is a long road ahead... not one for impatient supporters. A young squad will represent Central Coast this season, but if there is a positive that can be drawn upon, it's that expectations are very low. So the only way is up, right?
The one to watch: Mickael Tavares
2015/16 final position: 4th
One name - Tim Cahill. The day he signed for City, Melbourne became the place to see football this summer. Even if Timmy finds it hard to score on-field, his impact off-field will justify arguably the biggest marquee signing in A-League history. All of a sudden, Victoria has two relevant teams. All of a sudden, John van't Schip can roll out the greatest show of attacking football in town. All of a sudden, Aaron Mooy's exit doesn't leave such a gaping hole. While one man doesn't make a team, it's hard to see City not being contenders this year, such is their talent moving forward with the likes of Fornaroli, Colazo and Brandan. If you live in Melbourne, and you're not a Victory fan, all aboard the City bandwagon!
The one to watch: All eyes will be on Tim Cahill... but Bruno Fornaroli may hold the key
2015/16 final position: 6th
It was an interesting season last time out for the boys in blue. Starting promisingly, Victory slumped to mid-table and couldn't really find a groove, showing glimpses of the talent that dominated the competition in the previous year, but not frequently enough. With four minutes to go in their final against Brisbane, Victory had one foot in the Semis. Moments later they were out... victims of inconsistency that summed up their campaign. This year they regain fearless leader Carl Valeri, and have further strengthened their defence with Baro and Donachie. Solidity will be the key to returning the Big V to where they believe they belong - at the top.
The one to watch: James Troisi
2015/16 final position: 8th
Nothing's ever straight-forward for the Jets. Instability and high turnover both in playing and coaching staff have made it hard for Newcastle to find any consistency of late. With the board finally instilling their trust in Mark Jones for the upcoming season, improvement is expected, despite the lack of time that Jones has had to get to know his troops. The Jets have shown positive signs in preseason and early on to suggest they will be an exciting team to watch, with speed in attack courtesy of Hoole, Nabbout and Clut. Could they be the surprise packet of season 2016/17?
The one to watch: Andrew Hoole
2015/16 final position: 5th
If recent form is anything to go by, Perth Glory should be taken very seriously. Last season's start was pear-shaped to say the least, yet the Glory stormed home to make the finals only to be knocked out in week one. Too little too late perhaps? Whatever your opinion, moments in the early months of 2016 showed what the boys in purple are capable of. Add to that the signings of home grown talent Adam Taggart, Rhys Williams and Rostyn Griffiths and there is no reason why Perth can't return to glory... pardon the pun.
The one to watch: Diego Castro
2015/16 final position: 7th
The Sky Blues are back in a big way. Despite enduring one of their most disappointing seasons last time around, Sydney have ensured that there will be no shortage of goals in this year's title challenge. The signings of Ibini and Brazilian midfielder Bobô add pace and class to the existing goal threats of Brosque, Holosko, Carney, Ninkovic, Simon and Blackwood - a scary proposition for any defence. We all know Sydney FC hold lofty standards, which is why it will be a shock to us all if they don't find themselves as true contenders come finals time next year.
The one to watch: Bobô
2015/16 final position: 9th
Improvement is required if the 'Nix' want to be relevant in A-League circles. Last year's campaign never seriously got started, and Wellington found themselves struggling to get off the bottom rungs of the ladder. This year they welcome home New Zealand native, Kosta Barbarouses, who along with fellow ex-Victory man Gui Finkler will add potency to the Phoenix attack. The key will be how quickly kids such as Matthew Ridenton can lead the charge in what Wellington hope to be a bright new error. If they do some of the heavy lifting, Phoenix are sure to improve.
The one to watch: Gui Finkler and Kosta Barbarouses
2015/16 final position: 2nd
Another year, another Grand Final, and unfortunately for the Wanderers... another loss. It's remarkable how consistent Western Sydney have been in their four years in existence, but all that counts for little if you're not winning Championships. This season, this boys in red and black will again reload and aim to go that one step further. With a major turnover in squad personnel there may be teething problems early season 2016/17, but a classy and often-deadly front third will create headaches when they work as one. Expect them to be around the mark again come April next year.
The one to watch: Kerem Bulut