Will this be the Phoenix's year?
Savvy recruitment on top of a solid core means the Wellington Phoenix enter their sixth A-League season with their best ever chance of claiming the title.
Coach Ricki Herbert has retained the bulk of the squad that has qualified for three straight finals and against the odds finished fourth last season.
New recruits Stein Huysegems, Jeremy Brockie, Benjamin Totori, Glen Moss and Michael Boxall are all international players but are not prima donnas and should fit in snugly with the team's tight knit culture.
The Phoenix had the third-best defence in the league last season and that should continue as long as Leo Bertos makes a decent fist of his switch to right back.
Manny Muscat and Alex Smith form a no-frills but highly promising midfield engine room while, crucially, Herbert has bought pace in the front third.
Brockie, Totori and teenagers Louis Fenton, Tyler Boyd and Ricardo Clarke all bring much needed gas and a direct, no-fear approach while experienced pros Paul Ifill and Huysegems should provide the polish and direction.
There are three majors: a lack of a pure goalscorer, the continuing away struggles and the fact that while the Phoenix appear better, so does nearly everyone else.
The Phoenix scored the third fewest goals in the league last season and two regular contributors, Chris Greenacre and Tim Brown, have retired.
Winning a title will be difficult without a cold-blooded marksman like Shane Smeltz, Besart Berisha or Archie Thompson. Instead, Herbert will need Brockie, Huysegems and Ifill to share the load and score around double figures.
The road woes are well documented and although there was improvement last season, the Phoenix need to finish higher in the league to give themselves a realistic shot of progressing to the grand final.
A deeper and more competitive squad should help in that regard with Herbert able to freshen up his troops if fatigue or complacency set in.
The league as a whole is also deeper and more competitive than ever.
Two-time defending champs Brisbane Roar start deserved favourites having retained all of their star players including brilliant German Thomas Broich.
The only question mark is whether new coach Rado Vidosic can maintain the impeccable standards left by Ange Postecoglou, now with Melbourne Victory. Postecoglou will need some time to fully implement his fluid passing game but once he does Marcos Flores, Thompson, Marco Rojas and new Brazilian Guilherme Finkler could run away with the league.
And while last year's minor premiers Central Coast Mariners have lost some key men, it would be foolish to write off their excellent coach Graham Arnold and rising sensation Tom Rogic.
Sydney FC (Alessandro Del Piero), Newcastle Jets (Emile Heskey) and new boys Western Sydney Wanderers (Shinji Ono) have all spent big while we are yet to mention last year's beaten grand finalists Perth Glory.
IT HAS been hard to get a read on the Phoenix's pre-season, having played just two A-League opponents. The first was a loss in a brawl against Newcastle and the second a 1-1 draw with Western Sydney.
So are they ready for Sydney tomorrow night at Westpac Stadium?
"I'd like to think so. Obviously it's been a long pre-season so we've had plenty of time to prepare for this," said Phoenix captain Andrew Durante.
"You never quite know where you are until the competition actually starts but I'd like to think that we're in pretty good nick to fire for the start of the season. I think it's the most balanced squad we've had, I think we can cover pretty much every position this season if there's injuries which is probably a very good thing for Ricki.
"It's a headache for him to choose the starting XI but a very good headache. Obviously you've got Box [Boxall] at centre half to cover myself and Siggy [Ben Sigmund], hundreds of options up front, you've got Benji [Totori], Louis, Ifill and Brocks [Brockie] all pushing for spots. You look at the players that aren't even in the squad at the moment, Vinnie's [Lia] still coming back from injury, Dani Sanchez is still a few months away and Jimmy Downey, so I think that speaks volumes about our depth this year."
Durante, who won man of the match in the 2008 grand final win with Newcastle, knows the clock is ticking for some of the Phoenix's key players, including himself, Mark Paston, Tony Lochhead, Ifill, Bertos and Sigmund.
"Look every year is one step further to finishing up so we'd love to do it this year. We're not getting any younger and I think the next few years is pretty crucial for the senior playing group. I think we've got a good enough squad to be in that top one or two this year.
"Hard work and a well-organised team is what wins A-League championships. You've seen Central Coast have had probably not the flashest of players but they're always in that top one or two because they're so well organised and work hard. So they're of a similar style to what we are.
"If there's a year to do it I think this one could be the year."
AT A GLANCE
Phoenix before Christmas: October 6 v Sydney FC at Westpac Stadium October 14 v Melbourne Heart at AAMI Park October 21 v Brisbane Roar at Westpac Stadium October 27 v Adelaide United at Hindmarsh Stadium November 5 v Melbourne Victory at Etihad Stadium November 11 v Central Coast Mariners at Westpac Stadium November 18 v Newcastle Jets at Hunter Stadium November 24 v Perth Glory at nib Stadium December 2 v Western Sydney Wanderers at Westpac Stadium December 9 v Sydney FC at Westpac Stadium December 16 v Adelaide United at Hindmarsh Stadium December 22 v Central Coast Mariners at Westpac Stadium
The Dominion Post