Talking points preview: Wellington vs City
The wait for our City girls' return to action is almost over, with Rado Vidosic's side kicking off their season across the ditch tomorrow as they take on Wellington Phoenix in Round 1 of the 2022/23 A-League Women's season.
The team will be full of confidence after a strong 2021/22 campaign in which they finished second and fell at the Preliminary Final stage, with a positive off-season of transfer business putting the squad in good stead heading into Round 1.
A fast start to the new season will be the goal for City, so let's take a look at some of the major talking points heading into our clash with the second-season Phoenix:
No McNamara, no Wilkinson, no Tumeth, no Roestbakken... no worries? Hopefully.
Despite some strong off-season recruitment, Vidosic finds himself with a few headaches heading into Round 1 with three key members of his 2021/22 best XI out with long-term injuries. Karly Roestbakken is missing for at least this week, Holly McNamara and Hannah Wilkinson could be out until the New Year, whilst Tori Tumeth will be lucky to return before Finals, if at all.
In the positions of McNamara and Wilkinson will likely be recent acquisitions Cote Rojas and Bryleeh Henry - two very shrewd signings from City on paper. The blend of experience and youth, creativity and pace could prove a lethal combination up front for City, particularly when supported by the third cog in City's attacking wheel, Rhianna Pollicina.
However, players on-paper and on-field are two very different concepts, and it will take some tactical adjustments from Vidosic to get the best out of Rojas and Henry.
When considering the overall picture and accounting for these aforementioned attackers, defensive replacements for Tumeth and Roestbakken, and then the other players who will enter the XI to replace City's big departures from last season, there are a host of new pieces to Vidosic's puzzle, and fitting them together mightn't be as simple as just putting them on the board.
Can our new-look defence gel together for a clean sheet?
With Tumeth absent, Winonah Heatley and TJ-Vlajnic gone for good, and a potential change between the sticks, Melbourne City's backline to face the Phoenix could be looking very different to that which served us so faithfully in 2021/22.
Captain Fantastic Emma Checker could remain the only constant, with Sally James a very real chance of starting ahead of Melissa Barbieri in goal despite the 42-year-old's incredible last campaign, Katie Bowen and Naomi Chinnama likely to join Checker in the back three, and then one of Chelsea Blissett or Julia Grosso who are presumably competing for the left wing-back role.
However this defensive unit lines up, it will be facing off against a Phoenix attack that scored less than a goal per game in 2021/22, so a clean sheet should remain the objective.
Three points and a clean sheet would be the perfect start to the new season, especially for the confidence it would provide to our unfamiliar and potentially very young backline.
Ok, but how good are the Phoenix actually going to be this year - and should we be nervous?
In its inaugural season in the ALW, Wellington performed about as poorly as expected, but finished bottom of the table only on goal difference, equal with Western Sydney on seven points.
There is an inevitable optimism about the 'Nix this year though, and the team's inaugural home crowd could potentially be in excess of 10,000 thanks to the club's campaign to mark its NZ return as a chance to 'Be Part of Herstory'.
So, should we be nervous? Absolutely.
The Phoenix will inevitably improve in their second season, this City squad is very young with a lot of new faces in the starting XI, and who knows how the team will cope with unprecedented (in the ALW) cross-Tasman travel and then performing in front of a potentially league-record crowd?
The result is far from a certainty, and we're all the more excited for it.