It seems like it's been forever. Well, it kinda has been. But finally the new A-League season is upon us, but given the long break it's impossible to know who is the team to beat.
Indeed, the momentum built up from last season by clubs such as Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners is surely gone. With new signings aplenty all over the A-League, the top six, let alone the title contenders, are anyone's guess.
As well, the departure of skipper Matt McKay along with goalscorers Kosta Barbarouses and Jean Carlos Solorzano leaves some holes to fill at Suncorp Stadium. Considering the Roar were so dominant last season, them coming back to the field, could be good news for A-League neutrals.
So with all that in mind, along with the fact I'm not Nostadamus (shock horror), I gave up hope of predicting the premiers and instead reverted to thinking about how clubs become successful.
Indeed, every club has their own style and system, but there's always players integral to that functioning, so a lot of their success depends on particular individuals.
Perhaps Brisbane's example last season suggests that isn't true, as the team still got results in Matt McKay's absence in January during the Asian Cup, but then again, if you go through the records you'll see they only won once in four games while he was in Qatar.
Thus, here's my list of the players who hold the key for their respective clubs.
With Sergio van Dijk and Bruce Djite up front, along with Eugene Galekovic and new skipper Jon McKain down back, the Reds have some real strength. However, they lost a lot of midfield talent during the off-season, including Johnny Warren medallist Marcos Flores and I'm not totally convinced they've suitably replaced their departures. Socceroo Dario Vidosic is a player who's been drafted in to fill the void and he'll be integral to linking up play between midfield and attack.
Ange Postecoglou's system may have worked despite absences last season, but you still need quality to execute the plan. Early last campaign there were concerns they couldn't finish off their fine football, but eventually they found their goalscoring touch. However, with McKay, Barbarouses and Solozano all now gone, they'll need to find someone who fits in quickly and there's a few candidates led by Albania international Besart Berisha. German midfield maestro Thomas Broich needs to continue to provide the supply.
Central Coast Mariners
It's easy to forget Graham Arnold's side were very good last season. Hard-working striker Matt Simon and tireless full-back Pedj Bojic epitomise what this club is about, while the genuine talents such as Mustafa Amini, Oliver Bozanic and Josh Rose give them their edge. Defensively they are a sound side too, with Patrick Zwaanswijk running the show, however their number one keeper, Mat Ryan, is only 19-years-old. He made many wonderful saves last season but also some errors. However Ryan always stayed mentally strong and the new season is another challenge for him.
Gold Coast United
How to replace Jason Culina and Shane Smeltz, that's the big question for Miron Bleiberg who went defensive last season. With less quality at his disposal now, will he go further into his shell? I fancy he will, meaning individuals with a bit of flair and pace in attack will be crucial to their forward thrusts.
I've got my concerns about the Heart this term. Their problem last season was scoring goals and during the off-season they lost their two topscorers in John Aloisi and Gerald Sibon. Fred has been brought in as their creative player who can organise the attacks, but who will finish it off? David Williams joins but he's hardly ever been prolific despite being talented. Therefore, Heart's other new striker, 25-year-old Brazilian Maycon, is the man but it's hard to know what to expect from him.
There's no secret to this one, if Harry Kewell stays fit and finds top form in the A-League, he'll take the competition by storm. His 45-minute performance in the pre-season game against Adelaide showed he's a cut above. Give him a yard of space or time on the ball and he'll punish you. The challenge for Mehmet Durakovic is figuring out where his best position will be, with a host of talented players, such as Archie Thompson and Carlos Hernandez, demanding the ball around him.
It's been a dramatic few days for the Jets but this is a club who've already got issues, with no clear solutions found for their goalscoring issues from last term. Marquee signing Jason Culina's season-ending injury is a major blow to their plans and realistically it's hard to know where the goals will come from. Ben Kantarovski, Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Kasey Wehrman give them something to work off in defence, but someone needs to emerge as a forward. Marko Jesic hinted he might be the one after a good pre-season.
Glory have made some shrewd signings in the off-season, Danny Vukovic and Shane Smeltz arguably the best two. However, linking midfield with attack is a long-existing problem for Perth, so the addition of ex-Manchester United man Liam Miller is with a view to solving this.
Glory often tried to play it around in defence last season, but once they went forward it fizzled out. In Miller, they've got someone who's creative enough to set up his team-mates and talented enough to beat opponents.
Marquee man Brett Emerton may be the big acquisition, but playmaker Nick Carle is the vital cog in this side as evidenced by the Sky Blues' impressive late season form last term when he finally got a regular run on the park. If Carle stays fit and gets his confidence up, then he can inspire Sydney like he did the Jets in the early A-League years.
Given that Lucas Pantelis, potentially Wellington's only new signing who would've been a starter, has been ruled out for the season with injury, there's got to be some concerns about the Nix this term. They've also lost young winger Marco Rojas and his creativity will be sorely missed after his seven assists last term. Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund are a good back two, but the forward line is the concern. Keeping Paul Ifill fit and healthy, therefore, is vital.