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Football: Blockbuster to open A-League season

Sydney (AFP) – Australia’s domestic A-League kicks off Friday with dominant Sydney FC defending their title and Western Sydney Wanderers in turmoil, as a host of foreign imports look to make their mark.

Graham Arnold’s Sydney FC enjoyed a record-breaking season last year, finishing with 66 points from 20 wins and just one defeat in 27 games.

It culminated in a gripping shootout win over Melbourne Victory in the grand final and the coach warned they are now even better.

“Our motivation is to be better than last season,” said Arnold. “It’s about moving forward and being greater than what we were.

“We believe that we’ve got a greater squad than what we had last season, we’re a greater team than what we were last season and we’re looking forward to the start this week.”

They face an immediate acid test in a rematch of the final against the Victory in Melbourne on Saturday.

Victory have nine new recruits in their squad, including returning former captain Mark Milligan and Matias Sanchez, who has spent the best part of the last decade playing in Argentina’s top flight.

But they will be hampered with Milligan and James Troisi on Socceroos duty, as the national team bids to keep their World Cup final hopes alive in a two-leg play-off with Syria.

The Wanderers get their campaign underway at home against Perth Glory on Sunday after coach Tony Popovic lobbed a bombshell this week by announcing he was quitting with immediate effect to work at Turkish club Karabukspor, taking his two assistants with him.

Hayden Foxe has taken temporary charge as the search for a permanent replacement gets underway.

“We just carry on as usual with the job at hand and that’s to take and get all three points against Perth Glory on the weekend,” Foxe told reporters, calling Popovic’s sudden departure “a little hiccup”.

“The boys are very resilient in what they can control. They can’t control outside influences.”

– ‘More spice’

The season starts with Brisbane Roar tackling Melbourne City on Friday, with both teams keen to lay down their early credentials.

Brisbane scored a coup by enticing winger Eric Bautheau this season, with the Frenchman joining a host of other foreign imports chancing their luck in Australia.

Adelaide United have high hopes for Algerian attacking midfielder Karim Matmour, who used to ply his trade with Huddersfield Town, while Dutch international midfielder Wout Brama is now on the Central Coast Mariners’ books.

Polish veteran Adrian Mierzejewsk will be looking to help Sydney FC to another stellar season.

In the other weekend games, the Mariners face the Newcastle Jets and Wellington Phoenix take on Adelaide United, with both Wellington and Adelaide recruiting new European coaches in Dutchman Darije Kalezic and German Marco Kurz.

The Mariners and Jets have also undergone major off-season overhauls, notably seeing journeyman Irish striker Roy O’Donovan switch between the two teams.

“I’m looking forward to it. I like rivalries and this will be good,” said the Jets’ O’Donovan, who had previous stints with English clubs including Sunderland and Coventry. 

“The A-League needs more spice in games. (My move) is good for the Jets and it’s good for the Mariners.”

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