Wellington Phoenix unsurprisingly surprising
It was surprising but, at the same time, not surprising at all.
We read last week prior to the A-League season kicking off that several Australian football pundits were tipping a season of woe for the Wellington Phoenix.
No surprise in that; it happens every year, almost as if ''Phoenix'' is the default option next to the words ''wooden spooners'' on the prediction form and few can be bothered altering it.
Maybe it was the lack of star power. No Del Piero or Heskey in these parts, they said, just an unknown Belgian whose name is suited to print but perhaps not for the unfortunate radio and television commentators, a kid from Tawa (where's that?), and a journeyman All White now at his fifth A-League club.
But those who scratched the surface would almost certainly have agreed; this is the deepest and perhaps most talented squad Ricki Herbert has ever assembled. Given they've made the finals for the past three years with less ammunition, and various off-field distractions, surely this is the year the Phoenix have to go closer than ever to delivering a title?
There should be an expectation, and consequently pressure, on them to really challenge.
We know the Phoenix will win most of their matches at home, and Saturday's opening 2-0 victory of Del Piero's Sydney FC was a prime example of their dominance at Westpac.
Even without Paul Ifill, the Phoenix were several notches above Sydney and the value added by Stein Huysegems up front and young Louis Fenton was significant. Their goals were superbly taken but it was their overall contributions that were most encouraging.
Fenton, who in an Australian football website poll was voted the most impressive new A-League blood in round one, leaves you wondering how on earth it took the club so long to set up an academy system.
The 4-4-2 system Herbert has adopted over a 4-3-3, with Huysegems and Brockie up front, should aid the attack and is more balanced. It should also give them a better chance of picking up points away from home. So many times in recent seasons, the Phoenix went into their defensive shell in Australia and poor old Chris Greenacre was left to chase on his lonesome.
Thankfully, Huysegems looks as though he'll have more support.
But perhaps the most significant change will be Manny Muscat's return to the midfield. Used primarily as a right back at the Phoenix, because New Zealand football is, incredibly, still yet to unearth a genuine right back (if Leo Bertos can't make a go of it, maybe we should set up 'Right Back Idol'), Muscat is at his best in the holding midfield role.
Possibly the most underrated player in the league, and certainly the best of Herbert's buys, there is very rarely an attacking midfielder who gets the better of the Maltese Magnet. He just sticks to them, and hounds them out of the game. Even Del Piero.
Chuck in one of, if not the, best centre back pairings in the league, two international goalkeepers, and a bench capable of filling holes when the inevitable injuries and suspensions strike, and you'd have to say the Phoenix have a royal chance of finishing in the top four, and even the top two.
Of course, that will hinge on their ability to win away. They've been getting better, and they have the players now, but there is still doubt over whether they can pick up enough points in Australia to seriously challenge.
They'll win enough at home to make the playoffs, but they'll need to bring a fair chunk of them back from Australia if they're to give themselves a realistic shot at the all-important home advantage at the business end.
We wait with anticipation, though we probably won't get a true gauge when they are away to Melbourne Heart on Sunday, with seven players and Herbert on international duty. Their new found depth, and the academy system, will certainly be tested to the ultimate limit.
There has been plenty of hype around this A-League season and it appears it was justified, with new single-round records for attendance, TV ratings and digital audiences in the first round.
About 93,500 fans turned out across the five matches, beating the previous single-round aggregate record set in round three last season, by 6000.
An average audience of 108,000 per game made it the highest-rating single round TV audience all-time, and marked an increase of 38 per cent from the corresponding round last season.
The names have clearly made an early impact. The challenge now is to sustain those numbers.