No excuses for Babbel as stars start to align
IF Markus Babbel is feeling $390m of pressure, so far he's not showing it. But if the Wanderers don't start the new season with a bang, we might start to see the strain.
The Western Sydney coach begins his second season in Australian football with almost every prevailing wind gusting in his favour. After three miserable years as nomads, his team returns to an inspiring, $360m stadium in Parramatta. They train at a newly opened $25m centre of excellence with European levels of attention to detail.
Babbel has been backed heavily in terms of squad signings, with two marquees - Bundesliga veterans Alex Meier and Pirmin Schwegler - on some $2.5 million between them. His backroom staff is extensive, including Bayern Munich's former fitness guru. Overall, after three mediocre seasons, and two without even making the finals, the expectation is that the Wanderers will be back among the pacesetters.
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The only cloud, albeit a substantial one, is the knee injury suffered by playmaker Radoslaw Majewski just three weeks out from the start of the season and which will in all likelihood rule him out for the whole campaign.
The fact it came from one of his own, injured in a shuddering training-ground tackle with defender Dylan McGowan, simply magnifies the loss, for Majewski had the potential to be a serious A-League hit.
His absence won't, though, cut Babbel much slack. Though chairman Paul Lederer gave Babbel his unstinting backing after last year's underwhelming showing - noting that the squad he inherited was very much chosen by his predecessor, the little-lamented Josep Gombau - this year is different.
The majority of the squad is new, with key signings right down the spine. Players like Mat Jurman and Daniel Georgievski are proven A-League winners; McGowan is solid and uncompromising at the back.
Schwegler plays with the assurance of someone with 300+ games in the Bundesliga, while goalkeeper Daniel Lopar has already produced several brilliant saves in the FFA Cup.
On paper it's a strong squad, the loss of Majewski notwithstanding, but football is played on grass, not paper, as was once famously pointed out.
Can Babbel find the requisite alchemy to meld this squad into title challengers? The theme of his managerial career so far, at four previous clubs in Germany and Switzerland, has been a successful first season (or first two seasons at Luzern most recently) followed by his departure before the end of the season after.
At Western Sydney he must reverse that trend, after winning just nine of 31 games last season. In fact his regular post-match potshots at his own team became more entertaining than actually watching them play.
So far his managerial statistics pale in comparison with the achievements of his playing days. But the margins in the A-League are sufficiently narrow that a team with a competent structure studded with enough quality in key areas usually does well.
The Wanderers keep talking about being a big club, and for the first four years of their existence they were. But three years of underachievement starts to become a theme, and Babbel must be aware that with so many winds at his back, he needs to provide quick evidence that the ship is travelling exactly where he wants it to.