W-League Season Preview 2020-21: Predicted XIs, new signings, key players, ones to watch

It's been one of the strangest and most chaotic off-seasons in W-League history.

It began with last season's Grand Final -- one of the first sporting events in the world to be played behind closed doors, foreshadowing what has become the new normal in global sport -- ultimately won by the competition's new dynasty, Melbourne City, for the fourth time in five seasons.

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Next came the Matildas exodus; a flood of experienced senior players encouraged to seek the higher wages and longer seasons of Europe, the location of women's football's newest frontier. Australian football's anxious response to the vacuum created by these departing players (the quality will drop! Nobody will watch!) has slowly morphed into a buzz of excitement as a new generation of Australian women are finally given the chance to announce themselves to the world, just as Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso, Kyah Simon, and many other Matildas did a decade ago.

Third, although COVID-19 had pressed pause on all football competitions, FIFA nonetheless announced that Australia and New Zealand would be hosting the 2023 Women's World Cup; an historic moment that many in the football community in these two countries are still yet to fully appreciate. With this goal now on the horizon, the 2020-21 W-League season takes on a whole new complexion; it is now the immediate proving ground for a crop of players aiming to see their names on that team-sheet in three years' time.

Finally, the W-League is on the verge of an independent era; the first of its kind in Australian professional football, and perhaps the start of its most exciting chapter yet. So as we enter into this new "unbundled" stage for the competition, at the close of one of the game's most challenging and most transformative years, here's everything you need to know about each team ahead of Sunday's (hopeful!) curtain-raiser between Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne Victory.

JUMP TO: Adelaide United | Brisbane Roar | Canberra United | Melbourne City | Melbourne Victory | Newcastle Jets | Perth Glory | Sydney FC | Western Sydney Wanderers

Adelaide United

Manager: Adrian Stenta

Key Ins: Annalee Grove, Sian Fryer-McLaren

Key Outs: Sarah Willacy, Mallory Weber, Amber Brooks, Mary Fowler

Predicted Starting XI: Annalee Grove, Charlotte Grant, Emily Hodgson, Laura Johns, Matilda McNamara, Georgia Campagnale, Emily Condon, Isabel Hodgson, Dylan Holmes, Emily Condon, Mallory Weber

Key Player: Laura Johns

Following the loss of Adelaide's 2019-20 captain Amber Brooks, 26-year old full-back Laura Johns, who wore the co-vice captain's armband last season, will likely take on a greater leadership role in Adelaide's squad. As one of the Reds' most reliable and consistent defenders, Johns -- alongside Kahlia Hogg -- is now one of the club's oldest and most experienced players, having made her first appearance for them back in 2012. A modern full-back with the engine and attacking instincts of a winger, Johns will be crucial not only to Adelaide's new-look strike force, but her age-old wisdom will be crucial in helping keep her largely young side focused on the task at hand.

One to watch: Chelsie Dawber

While last season's top scorer Mallory Weber has returned, the departure of teen prodigy Mary Fowler means South Australian product Chelsie Dawber moves up a spot in the pecking order. Dawber comes into the 2020-21 season off her best-ever stint with NPL club Adelaide City, where she won the NPLW Golden Boot with 34 goals and was subsequently selected for Football Australia's first Women's Talent Identification Camp in November. Having made just a handful of appearances for United since signing in 2017, Dawber now has clearer air and an opportunity to translate her dominant state form into the national competition, where she will likely partner Weber up front.

What does success look like this season?

Adelaide United are the only W-League to have never qualified for the finals series. Success, then, is much more straightforward than the rest of the league: A better result than their best-ever finish of fifth in 2015-16. However, success is relative in a sport so heavily affected by COVID-19, and the loss of some of the club's key internationals -- particularly centre-backs Amber Brooks and Julia Ashley -- means Adelaide are relying almost exclusively on a crop of local players to push the club to new heights. What the Reds do have over some of their rivals, though, is squad consistency. This same group has been involved with the club for a number of seasons now, as well as playing with/against each other in the NPLW. This familiarity could stand them in good stead in the opening rounds, especially as other clubs who have had to almost entirely rebuild (Melbourne City, Perth Glory, Western Sydney) could take time to find their feet.

Brisbane Roar

Manager: Jake Goodship

Key Ins: Morgan Aquino, Kim Carroll, Olivia Chance, Emily Gielnik, Mariel Hecher

Key Outs: Mackenzie Arnold, Hayley Raso, Indiah-Paige Riley, Hollie Palmer, Rylee Baisden, Carson Pickett, Celeste Boureille

Predicted Starting XI: Morgan Aquino, Jamilla Rankin, Clare Polkinghorne, Kim Carroll, Kaitlyn Torpey, Olivia Chance, Katrina Gorry, Tameka Yallop, Emily Gielnik, Mariel Hecher, Rosie Sutton

Key Player: Emily Gielnik

While her season with German giants Bayern Munich didn't go according to plan, Gielnik found form during her most recent stint in Sweden, helping Vittsjo climb from near the relegation zone to finish fifth. Gielnik, for her part, scored eight goals after joining the club in July, becoming Vittsjo's second-highest scorer in the process. Now back at Brisbane Roar, where she played for almost a decade before moving to Melbourne Victory in 2018, Gielnik is one of the side's most in-form attackers and an exact like-for-like replacement for departed winger and last season's club top scorer, Hayley Raso.

One to watch: Jamilla Rankin

Widely regarded as one of Australia's most talented emerging full-backs, Junior Matilda Jamilla Rankin could finally be given the consistent game-time she's been craving since joining Brisbane last season only to make her debut in the final round. With a natural athleticism reminiscent of Ellie Carpenter, a fearlessness in tackles, and a wicked left-footed crossing ability, Rankin's performances for club and country likewise saw her selected for the Women's Talent Identification Camp in November, just over a year after winning the inaugural Sue Monteath Award for the Queensland Academy of Sport's Player of the Year in 2019.

What does success look like this season?

Brisbane Roar haven't quite lived up to their "big club" reputation in recent seasons. Their last trophy came in the form of the 2017-18 premiership, but in contrast to their dominant early years, the Roar haven't turned that into a Grand Final appearance since 2014. Their fifth-place finish last season was their worst since 2016-17, and has seemingly prompted the club to try and restore their former glories by stacking their side with a spine of experienced Matildas to complement an influx of young or fringe Queensland talent. New goalkeeper Morgan Aquino has big gloves to fill in taking over from Mackenzie Arnold, as does New Zealand international Olivia Chance, who steps in for the injured Elise Kellond-Knight, while new striker Mariel Hecher, who took out the Queensland NPL Golden Boot in 2020, will be thrown into the deep end following the loss of almost all of Brisbane's front line. Success for the Roar will be a return to finals football and, given the number of senior Matildas in their ranks, at least one of the trophies on offer.

Canberra United

Manager: Vicki Linton

Key Ins: Kendall Fletcher, Grace Maher, Michelle Heyman, Paige Satchell

Key Outs: Sham Khamis, Nikola Orgill, Kaleigh Kurtz, Karly Roestbakken, Simone Charley, Leena Khamis

Predicted Starting XI: Sally James, Isabella Foletta, Clare Hunt, Lauren Keir, Jessie Rasschaert, Kendall Fletcher, Laura Hughes, Grace Maher, Nicky Flannery, Michelle Heyman, Paige Satchell

Key Player: Michelle Heyman

It's "back to the future" for Canberra United this season with a number of players returning to the club after a few years elsewhere. This includes Matildas striker Michelle Heyman, who left Canberra for Adelaide in 2018 after representing the club for almost 10 consecutive seasons. Alongside Grace Maher, Nicky Flannery, Clare Hunt and Laura Hughes, all of whom played for Canberra when they won the 2016-17 Premiership, Heyman returns to United having found joy in her football again and will look to use her immense experience to mentor the club's younger players. The loss of last season's top goal-scorer Simone Charley means Heyman will be expected by new coach Vicki Linton to lead this new-look side both on the pitch, too, as the 32-year old aims to potentially recapture the form that saw her win the 2011-12 Golden Boot.

One to watch: Bianca Galic

Regularly praised in NSW National Premier League circles, 21-year old defensive midfielder Bianca Galic has signed her first W-League contract with Canberra this season. Having played for NPL giants Sydney University since she was 14, Galic emerged as one of the competition's most reliable and consistent midfielders in recent years, playing a pivotal role in Uni's dominant past three seasons under now-Perth head coach Alex Epakis. Calm and comfortable on the ball, Galic also has a needle-like passing ability and a game vision that belies her years. With Canberra's midfield stocks looking lower than other sides, Galic will likely make several appearances and show why she has been so highly regarded.

What does success look like this season?

Like Brisbane, Canberra have slid into mediocrity in recent seasons. From the pinnacle of their 2016-17 trophy, the club went on to finish fifth, eighth, and sixth -- the first time they'd missed consecutive finals series in their history. As the only stand-alone professional women's club in the country, with no A-League counterpart to support them, Canberra's achievements over the course of the W-League have had an extra sparkle to them. That sparkle that has dimmed over the past three seasons, but the recruitment of club legends and fan favourites suggests United are intent on recapturing what has made them such an important piece in the Australian women's football puzzle. A return to the top four looks likely for this nicely-balanced side, as does a shot at a trophy given their impressive squad depth and easy rotational ability. Results aside, success for United also comes off the park, drawing back the fans who'd become disenchanted with the club recently and embedding the team back into the Canberra community.

Melbourne City

Manager: Rado Vidosic

Key Ins: Teagan Micah, Jenna McCormick, Samantha Johnson, Hollie Palmer

Key Outs: Lydia Williams, Steph Catley, Ellie Carpenter, Lauren Barnes, Emily van Egmond, Aivi Luik, Yukari Kinga, Claire Emslie, Milica Mijatovic, Kyah Simon

Predicted Starting XI: Teagan Micah, Teigen Allen, Samantha Johnson, Jenna McCormick, Julia Sardo, Tyla-Jay Vlajnic, Tori Tumeth, Leah Davidson, Hollie Palmer, Sofia Sakalis, Rhali Dobson

Key Player: Teagan Micah

With almost the entire starting XI from City's double-winning season in 2019-20 has moved abroad, the one area that the club can be confident they've filled with equal quality is between the posts. Teagan Micah, the Matildas' third-choice keeper, will don the gloves in place of Lydia Williams, who conceded just four goals last season before joining Arsenal in July. Micah joins City after a spell with Victory last season, where the red-hot form of Casey Dumont kept the former UCLA glove-woman on the bench. She arrives following an impressive stint with Arna-Bjornar in Norway, where she started every game, though a hand injury meant an early return to Australia in October.

One to watch: Tori Tumeth

City's huge squad rotation this season has led Rado Vidosic to look further afield for untapped talent, and one of them undoubtedly is 19-year-old defender Tori Tumeth. A teammate of Bianca Galic at Sydney University over the past three successful seasons, the former Junior Matildas captain links up with City for her first ever W-League stint. Tumeth's background in both outdoor and indoor football also lends itself well to City's possession-based, technical style, having developed a silky first touch and quick decision-making skills within the smaller space of a futsal court.

What does success look like this season?

How can you improve upon an undefeated premiership-championship double season? You do it again, of course -- but this time, with an entirely different squad of players. Every player who started the 2019-20 Grand Final for City against Sydney FC has now left the club, meaning head coach Rado Vidosic has a huge task on his hands to not only fill the yawning voids left by some of the league's best players -- Ellie Carpenter, Rebekah Stott, Yukari Kinga, Emily van Egmond, Kyah Simon -- but to also develop partnerships and chemistry among the players in a short space of time. Perhaps, in light of this huge shift, success for City this season doesn't look like going one better than their last campaign; instead, qualifying for finals at all with a brand-new crop would itself be something to celebrate.

Melbourne Victory

Manager: Jeff Hopkins

Key Ins: Gaby Garton, Claudia Bunge, Kayla Morrison, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Lisa De Vanna, Catherine Zimmerman

Key Outs: Casey Dumont, Laura Brock, Jenna McCormick, Emily Menges, Grace Maher, Hayley Hanson, Natasha Dowie, Darian Jenkins

Predicted Starting XI: Gaby Garton, Angela Beard, Claudia Bunge, Kayla Morrison, Natalie Tathem, Amy Jackson, Annalie Longo, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Lia Privitelli, Catherine Zimmerman, Lisa De Vanna

Key Player: Kyra Cooney-Cross

Returning to Victory after a break-out loan spell with Western Sydney Wanderers last year, young attacking midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross is going back to where her W-League career began in 2017. While she came with big wraps, including being a train-on with the Matildas at the 2019 Women's World Cup, it wasn't until the 18-year old was given a platform at the Wanderers that she lived up to her reputation, scoring four goals and assisting two more as the club reached finals for the first time in their history. Having lost their natural No. 10 Grace Maher to Canberra, Victory will be looking to Cooney-Cross to play the same role she did last season, while the playmaker herself will look to put her best foot forward with an eye on next year's Tokyo Olympics.

One to watch: Claudia Bunge

Of the several Kiwi players to make their way across the ditch this season, Claudia Bunge is one that has many football fans back in New Zealand excited. After regularly impressing in the country's national women's league with Northern Lights, Bunge was handed her Football Ferns debut against China in 2019, stepping into the shoes left by veteran defenders Abby Erceg and Meikayla Moore. Far from shying away from the challenge, though, Bunge excelled, drawing special praise from national team head coach Tom Sermanni. She also worked under current Victory assistant Gareth Turnbull at the Under-20 Women's World Cup, and will likely lean into this old connection to help accelerate her growth into a player that many believe is a future Ferns legend.

What does success look like this season?

The past two seasons have been some of the most successful in Victory's history, claiming their first Premiership in 2018-19 and finishing runners-up in 2019-20. Although Victory have lost some key players from that two-season period including goalkeeper Casey Dumont, Matildas defender Laura Brock, and striker and former captain Natasha Dowie, they have also recruited well across the park, bringing in both young talent in Bunge, Cooney-Cross, and Kayla Morrison, as well as retaining some veterans such as Amy Jackson and Annalie Longo to help guide their less experienced teammates. The recent signing of Lisa De Vanna -- who returns for her third season in navy blue -- will add to this experienced core while also maintaining a level of intensity and professionalism that can only help improve those around her. A trophy is therefore not out of reach for Victory this season, though how quickly the club's new back four can gel might be the difference between a third consecutive finals appearance and mid-table mediocrity.

Newcastle Jets

Manager: Ashley Wilson

Key Ins: Taren King, Tiana Jaber, Chloe O'Brien, Sunny Franco, Sophie Harding

Key Outs: Clare Wheeler, Nicky Flannery, Libby Copus-Brown, Teigan Collister

Predicted Starting XI: Clare Coelho, Hannah Brewer, Taren King, Cassidy Davis, Gema Simon, Tessa Tamplin, Chloe O'Brien, Sunny Franco, Lauren Allan, Tara Andrews, Panagiota Petratos

Key Player: Tara Andrews

Tara Andrews, 26, is one of the only Australian players (men or women) to have spent her entire professional career at the one club, appearing for Newcastle in every season since 2009-10, with 93 appearances in total. She's been there through the club's highs -- their best-ever finish in 2017-18 -- as well as their lows, of which the past two years undoubtedly qualifies with club's off-field difficulties. As such, Andrews will not only be Newcastle's starting centre-forward (which, coming off the back of winning the NSW NPLW Golden Boot in 2020, can only be a good thing), but she will also be a key leader as the Jets try to navigate their current club-wide turmoil.

One to watch: Sophie Harding

Having only ever reached the "train-on" stage of W-League participation, striker Sophie Harding now has a chance to take the next step. Recruited from the North-West Sydney Koalas in the NSW NPLW, where she finished joint-runner up in this year's Golden Boot race alongside Remy Siemsen, the 21-year old Harding's greatest strength alongside her clinical finishing is her lightning pace -- something that could complement the slower movement of Andrews up front, and a suitable speed replacement for the departed Teigan Collister.

What does success look like this season?

Last season, Newcastle were the only W-League club to not sign an international visa player. The result was a third wooden spoon, with just seven points in 12 games and a goal difference of minus 15. Given all that's happened to the club off the field recently, success for the Jets this season would be to simply get off the bottom of the ladder. However, this season may actually be one of the most exciting for Newcastle, as global events have acted as a sort of equalisation measure across the league, with multiple clubs now not able to field visa players. Like Adelaide, much of Newcastle's squad are familiar with each other, having played together at the club for several consecutive seasons as well as in the NPL during the W-League offseason. This could inadvertently pay off for the Jets as they enter the season with chemistry and understanding between their major players already present. Their defeat of Sydney FC in a preseason friendly bodes well in this respect, and this -- combined with the emergence of a handful of promising young players -- could make the club one of the league's dark horses for a top four spot.

Perth Glory

Manager: Alex Epakis

Key Ins: Lily Alfeld, Malia Steinmetz, Marianna Tabain, Deborah-Anne de la Harpe

Key Outs: Kim Carroll, Eliza Campbell, Celia Jimenez Delgado, Leticia McKenna, Crystal Thomas, Shannon May

Predicted Starting XI: Lily Alfeld, Natasha Rigby, Elizabeth Anton, Jamie-Lee Gale, Isabella Wallhead, Malia Steinmetz, Hana Lowry, Caitlin Doeglas/Patricia Charalambous, Marianna Tabain, Katarina Jukic, Deborah-Ann de la Harpe

Key Player: Natasha Rigby

Less than a month after being called into her first ever national team camp, Glory captain Natasha Rigby will lead an almost entirely new crop of players out onto the field for her fifth straight season in purple. The left-back has had one of the toughest gigs as far as W-League leadership goes, taking over from Matildas skipper Sam Kerr after she signed for Chelsea before the 2019-20 season. Despite the shake-up, Rigby settled into her new role almost immediately, guiding Perth to a strong campaign finish while playing a significant role on and off the pitch. She'll need to draw upon that same experience this season with a hastily-picked group that includes several new faces and hope that Perth's delayed preseason (due to border closures and a coaching reshuffle) won't handicap them too heavily.

One to watch: Hana Lowry

She burst into the consciousness of W-League fans with a bullet header on debut in Perth's chaotic 4-2 win over Newcastle in round 9 of 2019-20, and this season, Junior Matildas midfielder Hana Lowry will be given an even greater opportunity to prove why she's touted as Australia's "next big thing." The 17-year old Perth native is regarded by many in junior national team circles as the heir apparent for Emily van Egmond, with a creativity, vision and passing range that already exceeds many of her W-League peers. Coupled with a lethal left foot and a penchant for scoring long-range goals, Lowry is shaping up to have a breakout season under new head coach Alex Epakis, whose own experience nurturing young players at NPLW level makes this player/coach combo potentially season-defining.

What does success look like this season?

Despite their seventh-place finish last season, Perth started to find impressive form towards the back end of their campaign, defeating both Brisbane and Sydney in two of the final three rounds. Perth's finals record has been a pattern of peaks and troughs, finishing fourth, sixth, second, and eighth in the past four seasons. The obvious barometer of success for Perth, like all other teams this season, will be a return to the top four to maintain this streak. However, perhaps more-so than other teams, Perth find themselves with a group of players with genuine potential to be called into national teams over the next few years including Lowry, Rigby, Caitlin Doeglas and Deborah-Anne de la Harpe, alongside Kiwi youth internationals Malia Steinmetz and Elizabeth Anton. Providing these players with crucial competitive match minutes and allowing them to maximise their natural strengths to help them springboard further into their careers will be the mark of a successful season for Perth, even if it isn't obvious just yet.

Sydney FC

Manager: Ante Juric

Key Ins: Jada Mathyssen-Whyman, Clare Wheeler, Rachel Lowe, Allira Toby, Cortnee Vine, Charlize Rule

Key Outs: Aubrey Bledsoe, Sofia Huerta, Alanna Kennedy, Chloe Logarzo, Amy Sayer, Caitlin Foord, Veronica Latsko

Predicted Starting XI: Jada Mathyssen-Whyman, Ally Green, Ellie Brush, Elizabeth Ralston, Angelique Hristodoulou, Teresa Polias, Clare Wheeler, Rachel Lowe, Allira Toby, Remy Siemsen, Cortnee Vine

Key Player: Remy Siemsen

Sydney FC are probably thanking their lucky stars that Remy Siemsen is the only joint-Golden Boot winner from 2019-20 who decided to stay in the league this season. The 21-year old striker followed up her seven goals in 12 games for Sydney with a blistering NSW NPLW campaign, scoring 10 goals for Manly United on their way to a Championship win. She was beaten on that Golden Boot tally by new teammate Cortnee Vine, who made the switch to Sydney from the Wanderers in the offseason. Alongside Allira Toby, who Sydney signed from Brisbane Roar, the Sky Blues are looking to have one of the most exciting young strike forces in the league, hungry for the opportunity to step up in place of the international forwards who haven't returned.

One to watch: Rachel Lowe

Emerging onto the W-League stage with Western Sydney in 2016, Rachel Lowe returns to Australia following two years in the USA college system with UCLA where she played with Matildas goalkeeper Teagan Micah. As the only natural attacking midfielder on Sydney's books this season, Lowe will likely play a major role in breaking down defences and connecting the team's lines, stepping into the creative shoes of the departed Amy Sayer and Chloe Logarzo. With several national team caps to her name already, Lowe is the third major challenger to Cooney-Cross and Lowry as the next in line for the Matildas' future No. 10 and this season could see her cement herself as camps and friendlies ramp up ahead of Tokyo and beyond.

What does success look like this season?

As the only club to finish in the top four every season since the W-League began, including making the Grand Final in seven of them (but only winning three), Sydney's idea of success is somewhat different to most other clubs. Maintaining their top-four record will be a priority, while there is also an expectation that they will reach the big dance once again -- having done so in four of the last five seasons. Getting there without a single international visa player in their squad, however, will be harder than it looks -- so even if they manage to reach the same point again, doing so with a team made up entirely of Aussies (only four of whom have a handful of competitive senior Matildas caps between them) will make this season even more impressive than ones gone by.

Western Sydney Wanderers

Manager: Dean Heffernan

Key Ins: Sarah Willacy, Nikola Orgill, Georgia Yeoman-Dale, Libby Copus-Brown, Olivia Price, Leena Khamis

Key Outs: Abby Smith, Samantha Staab, Alex Huynh, Amy Harrison, Denise O'Sullivan, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Ella Mastrantonio, Kristen Hamilton, Lynn Williams

Predicted Starting XI: Sarah Willacy, Courtney Nevin, Caitlin Cooper, Danika Matos, Nikola Orgill, Olivia Price, Libby Copus-Brown, Leena Khamis, Teigan Collister, Georgia Yeoman-Dale, Susan Phonsongkham

Key Player: Libby Copus-Brown

Despite making her W-League debut in 2013, Libby Copus-Brown only began to get serious match minutes for Newcastle in the last two seasons. The midfielder played an increasingly important role for the Jets last season before her move to Western Sydney, and in the interim was one of Manly United's stand-outs in their NSW NPLW campaign, winning Player of the Match in their Grand Final win. As the Wanderers have lost their entire starting midfield to other clubs at home and overseas, the 23-year old will now be given the chance to translate her recent state-based form to the national competition. A voracious, physical attacking midfielder, Copus-Brown's game vision and dead-ball abilities will make her a fitting replacement for both Cooney-Cross and Denise O'Sullivan in midfield.

One to watch: Courtney Nevin

Alongside Jamilla Rankin, 18-year old Courtney Nevin is also regarded as a future senior national team full-back, playing every available minute for the Wanderers in their best-ever season in 2019-20. Nevin has one of the most impressive left feet in the game, sharing corner responsibilities with Cooney-Cross last season as well as taking many set pieces for the Young Matildas in recent tournaments. She will benefit greatly from the mentorship of the more experienced Nikola Orgill in honing her attacking talents, but she has rarely looked out of place defensively when coming up against more experienced forwards due to her body awareness and tackle timing.

What does success look like this season?

The Wanderers' fourth-place finish last season was largely down to players that are no longer on their books. This is not a problem exclusive to them, but the holes that Western Sydney need to fill are much larger than those elsewhere (besides perhaps Melbourne City). Just seven of the club's entire squad from last season have remained, with just one of their regular starting XI (Courtney Nevin) returning for the upcoming campaign. Success for the Wanderers, then, will be to prevent the back-slide that this massive roster change anticipates. Key areas of concern are finding replacements for the impressive strike force of Lynn Williams and joint-Golden Boot winner Kristen Hamilton, centre-back pair of Sam Staab and Alex Huynh, as well as an entirely new midfield combination after the departures of Amy Harrison, Ella Mastrantonio, O'Sullivan and Cooney-Cross. While the Wanderers might miss the top four this season, a mid-table finish would be impressive given their circumstances.