The Phoenix kick off their new A-League campaign early next month. Jason Pine takes a look at how they are shaping up.

Q: How positive should Phoenix fans be about the new season?

A: Somewhere between cautiously optimistic and quietly confident. The squad coach Ernie Merrick has assembled rivals any previous Phoenix roster and the acquisition, in particular, of attackers Kosta Barbarouses and Gui Finkler from Melbourne Victory is exciting. They are two of the most potent and creative players in the A-League and will add plenty of firepower to a Phoenix frontline that already boasts high-calibre attacking players like Roly Bonevacia, Michael McGlinchey and Roy Krishna.

Q:But what about the defence? Didn't the Phoenix concede too many goals last season?

A: Yes, 54 to be exact, the second-worst in the A-League. The departures of long-time defenders Ben Sigmund (retired) and Manny Muscat (to Melbourne City) also leave some big holes in the squad. Merrick apparently sifted through close to 100 CVs before deciding on Italian Marco Rossi as Sigmund's replacement. He looks a classy and composed player who will partner skipper Andrew Durante in central defence. Confident Australian youngster Jacob Tratt will get first run at right back and Tom Doyle made big strides at left back last season. Dylan Fox adds youth and pace and Louis Fenton brings versatility. Defence has been a definite off-season focus.


Q: What about international games? I'm hearing there will be players missing at various times ...

A: Unfortunately, the A-League doesn't stop for Fifa windows, the first of which falls on the opening weekend of the season while the All Whites are away for games against the United States and Mexico. As a result, the Phoenix will be missing five players for their first game against Melbourne City in Wellington on October 8, including a big chunk of the back four. Those players will then have to fly to Perth to link up with the team for their second game against the Glory just four days after their match against the US. Thankfully, the All Whites' collective bargaining agreement specifies business class travel for games of this stature.

Q: Have other A-League teams got stronger too?

A: Certainly. The best example is Melbourne City, who signed 11 players in the off-season, including Australian striker Tim Cahill, Danish centre back Michael Jakobsen, Argentine attacker Nicolas Colazo and combative midfielder Neil Kilkenny. Among others to recruit well have been Sydney FC and Perth Glory, and defending champions Adelaide United and perennial front-runners Melbourne Victory have also tweaked their squads. The standard of the A-League increases every year and the 2016-17 season will be no exception.

Q: So give it to me straight - where will the Phoenix finish this season?

A: Every team enters any new A-League campaign with the playoffs as their minimum goal. Finishing in the top six is well within the capabilities of this Phoenix squad, but Merrick and the senior playing group have set their sights higher than that. Top four is the aim and, provided the defence can be fortified and the new signings click, there's more than enough firepower to score the goals needed to achieve that. Chuck a lazy fiver on fourth place.