Allianz Stadium will play host to the first Sydney Derby of the new A-League Men season (Image: Sydney FC Twitter)

As the A-League Men season draws near, The Inner Sanctum takes a look at five must-watch matches fans should tune in to for the first half of the season.

Adelaide United vs Central Coast Mariners (20/10/23)

During the 2022/23 season, Adelaide United and Central Coast emerged as two of Melbourne City’s primary rivals. Despite finishing in close proximity on the ladder, with the Mariners only finishing two points above the Reds, Nick Montgomery’s side swept its South Australian counterparts by winning all four encounters, while scoring an impressive 12 goals to Adelaide’s measly two.

Both sides approach football in a similar manner on and off the pitch, with their attacking brands of football complimented by their trust in the next generation of footballers, something which both will need to lean on in season 2023/24. The Reds have farewelled several experienced players and have only signed English midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe, while multiple members of the Mariners’ Championship squad have earned lucrative opportunities overseas after their successful campaign.

The Mariners have also lost coach Nick Montgomery to Scottish side Hibernian, and while his replacement Mark Jackson seems set to continue implementing an attacking philosophy and backing his youth, it will be interesting to see how he fares against Carl Veart on the Reds’ bench. Both sides operate drastically different to other A-League Men sides, and their encounter in the first week of the campaign will definitely set the pace for the season to come.

Wellington Phoenix vs Perth Glory (28/10/23)

The ‘Distance Derby’ is something both Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory supporters look forward to, but the 2023/24 season will see this encounter become interesting for a lot more reasons than the kilometres that separate the two cities. The most obvious difference when it comes from last season is that both sides enter the new campaign under new management, with Giancarlo Italiano replacing Ufuk Talay at the Phoenix, and Alen Stajcic taking over from Ruben Zadkovich in Perth.

The turnover of Wellington’s squad, and Perth’s inability to make the finals series since Tony Popovic’s time at the club, sees both sides enter the new season as outsiders in the fight to make the top six. Internally though, the expectation of both sides is to claim the final couple of spots. Since the two sides are expected to finish in close proximity to each other, these encounters will go a long way to deciding how the final ladder shapes up.

Scheduled in the second round of the new season, this match holds crucial significance for both new coaches in the early stages of their tenures at their respective clubs. Additionally, the 2023/24 season marks the final campaign wherein Wellington competes without a New Zealand counterpart, as the introduction of an Auckland side for the 2024/25 season is expected to eclipse the ‘Distance Derby’ in importance for Phoenix supporters.

Sydney FC vs Western Sydney Wanderers (25/11/23)

The Sydney Derby perennially stands out as one of the primary events marked on A-League calendars, and the 2023/24 season is no exception, especially following the eventful previous season in the Harbour City. Last off-season, shockwaves were felt throughout the league when Sydney FC legend Miloš Ninković surprisingly defected to rivals Western Sydney.

During their first meeting last season, the match between the two teams saw the Wanderers visit Allianz Stadium, where they remarkably secured a victory in the first derby at the reconstructed venue, with a goal from Kusini Yengi, notably assisted by Ninković himself. What followed this first encounter was unprecedented when it came to Sydney Derbies.

Next, Sydney FC evened the score by triumphing over the Wanderers in Paramatta, but Marko Rudan’s squad, impressively, secured their second victory at Allianz by a convincing four-goal margin against the Sky Blues. The two rivals encountered each other for the first time in the Finals Series, with Sydney FC eliminating the Wanderers at their home ground, propelling themselves into a Semi-Final, and completing the unprecedented trend where all four meetings of the 2022/23 Season were won by the visiting team. The upcoming first Sydney Derby of the new campaign sees Steven Corica’s side aiming for their inaugural home Sydney Derby triumph at the reconstructed Allianz Stadium, as two genuine Championship contenders clash once again – a rarity in the history of this rivalry.

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Western United vs Brisbane Roar (16/12/23)

For the first time in A-League Men history, siblings will lead opposing sides into a match as Head Coaches. John Aloisi’s Western United host Ross Aloisi’s Brisbane Roar in December in what is sure to be an interesting encounter, with both sides looking rejuvenated after facing difficulties in their last campaigns.

Since Ross Aloisi took charge, Brisbane fans have been invigorated by an exciting style of play exhibited by the new coach’s team, propelling the Roar into the Australia Cup Final where they had Sydney FC on the ropes during the first half of the match. Season 2021/22 saw John Aloisi’s Western United crowned as Champions, and after a disappointing 2022/23 campaign which saw it miss out on finals, a squad overhaul may be what Western needs to bounce back.

While John Aloisi’s side has been happy to play on the counterattack during his time at Western, the early days of Ross Aloisi’s Brisbane Roar suggest that his side enjoys controlling the ball which sets up an intriguing tactical battle between their sides. Both teams missed out on the finals after a disappointing 2022/23 Season and this six-pointer against the opposition set-up to take out their respective style will go a long way in building confidence in each coach’s system.

Melbourne City vs Melbourne Victory (23/12/23)

Similar to its Sydney counterpart, the Melbourne Derby is one fixture that makes Australian football stop and turn its attention to it. The Christmas Derby, hosted by Melbourne City, will be the first encounter between the two sides in the new campaign and it is a game that both teams will well and truly be building up to for the majority of the first half of the season.

Melbourne Victory aims to recover after a disappointing campaign saw them miss out on the Finals Series, while Rado Vidosic’s City side has welcomed a host of new players that need to be integrated into the team after its shockingly one-sided Grand Final defeat to Central Coast. Nothing will please either side of this derby more than getting one over their rival heading into the second half of the season, where of course they will clash again.

This derby has enough heat on its own, but two signings, one for each side, will certainly add another level of spice to this rivalry. The intensity of this clash will undoubtedly go up a notch with former Melbourne City wunderkind Daniel Arzani joining Melbourne Victory from Macarthur, while former Victory Semi-Final hero Terry Antonis will be representing the light blue side of Melbourne against his old side after moving back to Victoria from Western Sydney.

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