Steve Corica will coach Sydney FC this season.
Steve Corica will coach Sydney FC this season.

Intriguing battle between A-League’s puppet masters

AND so, the A-League managerial merry-go-round continues.

Of course it's got nothing on the Premier League, home to a record 15 changes last season.

Still, for a second successive domestic campaign five of the 10 coaches come newly appointed and with varying degrees of pedigree.

One, German Markus Babbel, arrives experienced but untested in Australia's unique football environment.

Other fresh faces, like Steve Corica and Mark Rudan, join the top flight completely green.

Then there's the tried-and-tested Tony Popovic and Mike Mulvey, proven high-achievers set on taking their own special brand of success to new surroundings.

For the neutral, it's a compelling blend of foreign blood, local rookies and a splash of musical chairs.

The incumbents, though, should be laughing.

Because save for a few exceptions, stability at the top has been a central tenet of on-field prosperity over the years.

That's perhaps reflected in the way Kevin Muscat, the longest-serving of the current crop at their present club, has two titles and another grand final to show for his five years.

And how he endured a near-fatal slump mid-last season.

Amid cries for his head, the polarising 45-year-old performed a scarcely believable turnaround to clinch the glamour side's record fourth championship from fourth place.

Shrewd off-season recruitment, featuring World Cup players Keisuke Honda and Ola Toivonen, reveals Muscat's designs on back-to-back championships - a feat only achieved by Ange Postecoglou's Brisbane.

Already there's a queue to stop him, none more enthusiastic than former Victory mentor-turned-combatant Ernie Merrick, whose Newcastle Jets controversially lost May's decider.

Initially criticised as recycled and past it, the Scottish-Australian's dynamic style and steady hand steered his inherited wooden-spooners within an inch of stealing Sydney FC's eventual runaway premiership.

Now, the only existing coach in NSW must shoulder the weight of heightened expectations.

The 65-year-old's astute player retention will work in his favour.

History could help too, with nearly two-thirds of past A-League coaches having won the Premiers' Plate in their second season with a club.

Englishman Warren Joyce and German Marco Kurz are the only others entering their second campaign.

Kurz assembled an industrious, tough-to-beat Adelaide that could yet draw confidence from an FFA Cup final triumph against Sydney this month.

The bar appears set high for Joyce, who secured City's best finish at third but missed a chance to make the grand final and must again attempt to deliver on unrealised potential.

He's not the only one feeling the squeeze, and Corica's task at Sydney is somewhat more unenviable.

Filling the boots of a man who orchestrated a record-breaking 2016-17 championship, two successive premierships and an FFA Cup isn't an easy assignment even for a veteran.

The club legend goes about his business in decidedly quieter fashion than Graham Arnold - gone are the booming guttural directives of the new Socceroos boss.

Yet having served a lengthy apprenticeship, he's no less confident in his own capabilities.

And for those already commemorating the end of Sydney's glittering era of dominance, Corica points out one key difference in the popular Sir Alex Ferguson-David Moyes analogy.

"Remember I was a part of that under Arnie too, it wasn't just one person who won all the trophies," Corica told Fox Sports.

 

Tony Popovic returned to the A-League with the Glory. Picture: AAP
Tony Popovic returned to the A-League with the Glory. Picture: AAP

 

"It was a team effort, and it will be a continuation of that this season."

Same can be said for John Aloisi who, in his fourth season at Brisbane, is finally rid of the off-field issues that have plagued his tenure.

That, coupled with improved acquisitions, suggests this is the time for the club's longest-serving coach to make a statement.

Whether it's on par with Mulvey's 2013-14 double is another question entirely, though Aloisi's Roar predecessor has a distinctly different challenge on his hands at Central Coast.

In the same vein as Newcastle's light-bulb Merrick moment, the Mariners replaced Paul Okon with an experienced head who's been there and done it all before.

And, having recruited sharply from an unprecedented pot of funds, Mulvey is upbeat about the minnow's prospects despite two wooden spoons in the last three years.

So too should be Tony Popovic, back from his ill-fated Turkey stint to give the A-League another crack at Perth.

 

Western Sydney Wanderers coach Markus Babbel. Picture: Brett Costello
Western Sydney Wanderers coach Markus Babbel. Picture: Brett Costello

 

In some respects Popovic is the antithesis of Kenny Lowe, the charismatic Englishman relieved of his duties after another frustratingly below-par season.

Not well-known for witty one-liners, the ambitious ex-Socceroos defender is a disciplinarian to rival the Marcelo Bielsa figures of the world.

His infamously ruthless approach to diet and training was a proven recipe at the Wanderers.

So as body-fat percentages drop, the chances of plucking Perth out of the doldrums ostensibly rise.

Already there are signs Popovic's little black notebook, the keeper of tactical wisdom, contains a few scribbles about dispelling the defensive frailties responsible for leaking 50 goals last season.

That's of equal priority at his former club Western Sydney, which shipped only three goals fewer under sacked Spaniard Josep Gombau.

The hierarchy steered clear of a prodigal-son Popovic return, opting instead for a former Liverpool and Bayern Munich defender boasting a decade of European managerial experience.

Can Babbel's achievements, of leading Hertha Berlin to Bundesliga promotion and qualifying VfB Stuttgart for the Champions League, return the Wanderers to Asia?

 

 

Babbel has walked into a complex tangle, taking over a squad with rock-bottom morale and still bearing the remnants of recent disarray.

The task is tall, though markedly more straightforward than Rudan's.

Having twice won the NSW and Australian NPL title with Sydney United, the new Phoenix coach has waited years for a first A-League gig.

Now the former Sydney FC captain's passion - and there is plenty of it - will undergo rigorous testing at a club battling against the wooden spoon and for its own continued existence.

"I was under no illusion coming in as to the extent of the job," Rudan said.

"I don't much like surprises, but there are quite a few that come around.

"But it's a challenge I have bought into, one I put my hand up for, and I will take whatever comes my way."

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