Sydney FC coach Ian Crook doesn't want to say it publicly - just in case he pulls a hamstring on the flight to New Zealand - but Alessandro Del Piero will start in tomorrow night's season-opening match against Wellington at Westpac Stadium.
Del Piero has completed all training and ball work with the first team this week and while he is not in peak physical condition just yet having not played in anything since May beyond an intra-club match, he moved well enough through yesterday's session to satisfy the coaching staff.
In one particular move that may hint at his readiness, Del Piero received the ball while facing away from goal, turned and spun into space before flicking a brilliant ball into the path of the oncoming Brett Emerton, leaving the Socceroo veteran to volley home a textbook finish.
The Italian hasn't yet developed a telepathic understanding with his new teammates but the signs were all there that the bigger risk for Crook would be leave him on the bench given how capable he is of creating opportunities from nothing.
''Alessandro will certainly come with us.He got through today's session and we're pretty settled on things now,'' Crook said yesterday.
''In an ideal world we'd like him to have another week or two or three but we haven't got that situation. We're just going to have to play it pretty smart as well. We've said all the way along that it's a long-term project.
''He's not here on short-term guest stint, but we feel that he's got enough quality to be able to give us something different.''
Del Piero will play in the trequartista position - effectively a free role between the midfield and forwards - a place he's made his own during the past 20 years.
Not so clear is who'll play ahead of him in attack. Sydney have options aplenty there, many of whom can drift between midfield and the front line.
Joel Chianese and Kruno Lovrek appear most likely to start, with Mitch Mallia lining up in right midfield and Yairu Yau coming off the bench.
''At the moment it's a difficult one,'' Crook said. ''Joel pulled up a little bit sore after training the other day but he certainly from what he did today, he'll be all right. Him [Chianese], Yau, Mallia, Kruno, Dimi Petratos and Del Piero [are in contention] - it's a nice headache to have but we'll have to see who starts.''
There's no queries over the fitness of Emerton, who has fully recovered from an ankle surgery and appears considerably fresher than he did at the same time last season.
''[He looks] brilliant. The operation has been a big success and I'm looking forward to seeing him play this year,'' Crook said.
''Emo's always been a fairly natural athlete. He hasn't had as much game time as the other boys, but the type of individual he is - he's been a player for a long time now - he knows what he needs to do to get himself right. What we've seen in the previous week, he's been great.''
With Emerton set to move to right-back, the back four will have an entirely new feel in round one with Fabio moving into the left-back role and Trent McClenahan set to join Adam Griffiths in central defence.
''We've done a lot of work in training and we'll see what happens in the next day or so. If I get picked, I'll be rapt and I'm looking forward to the game,'' McClenahan said. ''It's a good thing when the coach rates you.
I've been working hard, trying to do as well as I can in pre-season games and putting in as much hard work as I can to impress them to get in the starting line up.''
- Sydney Morning Herald
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