Clubs look forward as young stars light up Hyundai A-League
Contrary to appearances, the Hyundai A-League future looks bright for Central Coast Mariners, Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers.
Although the league’s bottom three are not in the hunt for silverware this season, these proud clubs are hoping they are sowing the seeds of something special.
Setting firm foundations for the future, the Roar, Mariners and Wanderers have been focussing their attention of blooding plenty of new talent this season.
And given the quality of youngsters to emerge during the campaign, these three ex-Premiership winners are set to rise on the shoulders of the players they have nurtured.
With Wellington Phoenix also producing some of the best young stars we have seen in 2018/19, the spotlight will be on the kids this weekend, as the New Zealand side travel to Gosford and Roar play host to the Wanderers.
Take a look at the pick of the bunch from the four clubs involved in Round 21, and how they've been integrated into Hyundai A-League football.
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Ipswich goal-machine forecasts a sunny future for Brisbane Roar
It has not been a happy season for three-time Champions Brisbane Roar.
But the recent emergence of Dylan Wenzel-Halls has gone some way to cheering supporters across the Queensland capital.
The 21-year-old striker had to wait patiently behind Adam Taggart for his chance to translate his prolific National Premier Leagues QLD form to the top flight.
Wenzel-Halls once scored seven goals in a single match for Western Pride, and while such feats are probably out of reach in the Hyundai A-League, the youngster has established an impressive record.
With three goals and two assists, including a spectacular last-minute match-winner against Sydney FC in early February, the forward has contributed to a goal every 95.2 minutes he has been on the pitch – a ratio that supersedes that of Golden Boot favourites Adam Le Fondre and Roy Krishna.
Dane Ingham, Izaack Powell and Joe Caletti have also impressed despite Brisbane’s malaise.
Powell famously became the club’s youngest-ever player in that grand shock over Sydney FC, while Ingham’s pace and Caletti’s intelligence suggest they will be around for years to come.
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How Russell kept a Caltex Socceroo on the bench
Wenzel-Halls could well be pitted against one of the season’s other strongest youth arrivals – Western Sydney Wanderers' Tate Russell - in Friday night's encounter.
Russell, 19, immediately proved his mettle for the Wanderers in a baptism of fire against Melbourne Victory in Round 11.
And since then, the fullback has carried himself admirably in a frequently rotated defence and amid the mental burden of a series of painful collapses.
He has started all but one of the 10 fixtures he has been involved in, keeping Caltex Socceroo Josh Risdon out of the team when he returned from the AFC Asian Cup.
It has been some show of faith from Markus Babbel, who has afforded the same to the likes of striker Abraham Majok, defenders Tass Mourdoukoutas and Mathieu Cordier, midfielder Marc Tokich and goalkeeper Nicholas Suman.
All six players went through the Wanderers academy, as did midfielder Keanu Baccus, who this season has played and performed like an established veteran.
If it were not for his two suspensions, the 20-year-old Baccus would likely have started every match for the Red and Black this season, a feat the considerably more experienced Tarek Elrich is the only Wanderers player to manage.
Run of the Millar
The imminent departure of Matthew Millar to rivals Newcastle Jets must be keeping Central Coast Mariners fans up at night.
Unearthed from the National Premier Leagues Victoria, the former South Melbourne man has been a revelation for the struggling Gosford club.
Millar has produced seven assists, almost double the tally of Melbourne Victory superstar Keisuke Honda (4), and more than the likes of Milos Ninkovic, Neil Kilkenny and Craig Goodwin.
Alongside the flying right-sided Millar, 20-year-old Aiden O’Neill has also performed exceptionally in trying circumstances, with the on-loan Burnley midfielder the heartbeat of Mike Mulvey’s midfield.
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Cacace spectacular in Rudan’s revolution
Mark Rudan promised to give emerging New Zealand talent a chance when taking the reins at Wellington Phoenix and he has been true to his word.
And despite the Kiwis employing the second-fewest U-24 players in the competition, a select few youth stars have been the backbone of Phoenix’s resurgence.
Sarpreet Singh has earned massive plaudits. The 20-year-old attacker has mustered a chance every 48 minutes, an incredible record for a youngster who has at times run rings around more senior colleagues.
Alex Rufer, 22, has been the rock of Rudan’s midfield in a breakout year, but it has been 18-year-old Liberato Cacace who has impressed the most.
The left-back has galloped up and down the flank like a Kiwi Roberto Carlos, and will surely be in Team of the Year discussions come the close of the campaign.