After another – and what appears to be becoming an annual – turnover of talent, Sydney FC have restocked and enter another A-League season with a host of fresh faces.
Despite that fluidity always being a nervous concern, manager Steve Corica handled the situation brilliantly last season, particularly after a host of players left the club at the completion of the 2017-18 campaign.
Corica had just walked into one of the most tense and expectant managerial positions in the land and I remember writing at the time that at the first sign of trouble, Sydney’s Graham Arnold-loving fans would be baying for blood.
That situation never occurred and the 46-year-old quietly and assuredly went about shaping the squad to his liking, despite considerable hurdles along the way.
Dutchman Jop van der Linden arrived with a solid pedigree yet was slow and ineffective early in the season. New signing Trent Buhagiar went down with a season-ending injury that denied the Sky Blues much pace and penetration up front and over the first two thirds of the season, while Milos Ninkovic, Siem de Jong and Alex Brosque starting matches together was a rare occurrence.
While much of that does sound like the unfortunate season of an unlucky club, Corica’s team finished behind only Perth in the race for the premier’s plate. They hammered the Victory 6-1 in the most stunning of semi-finals and then prevailed in a penalty shootout to pinch the title that Perth Glory appeared destined to claim.
Now Corica must do it all over again with inspirational captain Brosque no doubt enjoying a few more pizzas and beers in retirement and internationals Siem de Jong, Reza Ghoochannejhad and Jop van der Linden all having departed.
Influential midfielder Josh Brillante was poached by Melbourne City, Aaron Calver starts a new chapter at Western United and Daniel De Silva finishes a loan spell with the club and returns to the Mariners.
With the promising young Cameron Devlin, Jacob Tratt, Alex Cisak and Mitch Austin also released and destined to find a footballing home elsewhere, Sydney needed reinforcements – and did they find them.
Most notably, the lighter side of the Big Blue pinched a valuable member of the arch enemy when Kosta Barbarouses became a smurf. Alex Baumjohann had not been seeing eye to eye with Markus Babbel for some time at the Wanderers and also made the cross-town switch soon after the Kiwi had signed.
Potentially, those moves alone may well have been enough to bring Sydney well and truly back into the reckoning. However, the Harbour City club would also welcome Ryan McGowan from Bradford City and Luke Brattan from Manchester City’s books.
Anthony Caceres also became a permanent signing after joining the Sky Blues on loan last January and Sydney youth players Chris Zuvela and Patrick Flottmann will patiently await their opportunity to step into the big time this season, both with stars in their eyes.
With a squad containing the ever-improving Andrew Redmayne, one of the A-League’s most consistent midfielders in Brandon O’Neill and the mercurial Milos Ninkovic – who began returning to some of his best from through the latter stages of the title run – Sydney fans have reason for optimism.
Rhyan Grant is currently Graham Arnold’s first pick at right back for the Socceroos, Alex Wilkinson and Michael Zullo continue to perform consistently in defence, and the cherry on top is Englishman Adam le Fondre – a key ingredient in Sydney’s attacking potency.
With young defender Ben Warland, Paulo Retre and the returning Buhagiar offering the back up and depth that will be required when the Asian Champions League begins, Sydney FC look to be positioned well for the busy schedule which they are about to tackle.
Most anticipated will be the increased opportunities afforded to Luke Ivanovic after the 19-year-old showed maturity and talent beyond his years in his 11 matches in the sky blue last season.
On paper, the squad is finals-bound and potentially the bookies’ favourite to defend their title at this early stage. However, the key to Sydney’s hopes may well rest with the dapper and silver-haired gentleman on the sideline.
Corica has a reputation for composure and calm, attributes we saw in spades last season.
Sure, both are far easier to display when things are going along swimmingly, however, there were challenging moments for the Sky Blues in 2018/19 as Perth careered off into the distance.
Their Asian Champions League campaign produced some positive play but not the results they hoped for, and consistent injury concerns led to much chopping and changing of personnel.
In the end, Sydney got the job done and ripped the hearts from Glory fans in what was a disappointing grand final spectacle aside from the shootout.
Should Corica manage to repeat the dose in 2019/20, he may well become the most promising domestic manager in Australia, with his already considerable reputation enhanced further.
Or perhaps the problematic cycle of rebuilds will eventually catch up with Sydney and another title will prove beyond their grasp.
I wouldn’t bet against them, yet the unpredictability and challenge of the A-League will once again throw up a host of challenges.