A-League clubs in for their best shot at ACL glory since Wanderers miracle win


Australian teams kick off their latest AFC Champions League campaign on Tuesday but there should be bigger ambitions than an opening game win. This year is the best opportunity for an A-League title triumph since 2014 and not just because there are three teams in the group stage.

Perth Glory, Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory should settle for nothing less than getting out of their respective groups.

OK, the latter two have only managed that once each in multiple attempts but there may never be a better year than this to start polishing that dismal record.

The opposition is nothing to be scared of.

Chinese teams are obviously going to be more affected than most by the coronavirus.

While there are much bigger issues at play with this dreadful virus, which started in the city of Wuhan, efforts to contain its spread mean that the four Chinese representatives will not be in action until late April at the earliest. All hope this is the case as it will mean that everything is under control. 

In football terms however -- and with the Chinese Super League also postponed, -- when Shanghai SIPG, Shanghai Shenhua, Guangzhou Evergrande and Beijing Guoan do start to play regularly, they are going to be trying to squeeze a lot of games in. It would be completely understandable if there are other things on their minds.

Due to Melbourne’s impressive playoff win over Kashima Antlers last month, there are only three Japanese teams in the group stage and they are all low on Asian knowhow.

The likes of Yokohama F Marinos, Vissel Kobe and FC Tokyo may have plenty of talent but they have little experience of combining the twin challenges of trying to win at home and on the continent.

And the Koreans? The K-League has been home to more Asian champions than any other.

In the five finals from 2009 to 2013, there were three Korean wins and two defeats --one on a penalty shootout and the other on away goals.

It seemed that any team from the Land of the Morning Calm was capable of challenging. Not so much of late however. Since Jeonbuk’s win in 2016, the last three finals have seen Japan represent East Asia.

This then could be Melbourne’s year, despite poor domestic form. It is not always the team that is shining at home that finds the right balance in Asia --Urawa Reds reached the final last year and were almost relegated from the J.League.

Not being involved in the A-League finals series could also help.

Victory have already demonstrated their ability to get results in Asia this year and are in one of the weaker groups.

First opponents Changrai United won the Thai title last year after some investment had lifted the northerners from a mid-table team into a championship one.

The combination of technically sound Thais, a dogged South Korean midfielder and goalscoring Brazilians is a familiar one.

The days of underestimating Southeast Asian opposition should be long gone but this is an opponent making its Champions league debut --it has to be a home win and it will set Melbourne up nicely.

FC Seoul are far short of the side that reached the 2013 final tied with Guangzhou Evergrande in the 2013 final while Beijing Guoan have rarely impressed in Asia.

Perth also have a winnable group. FC Tokyo struggled at the end of the J.League season and let a first title slip. Ulsan Horangi are solid though lack a little star power while Shanghai Shenhua almost got relegated last season, only getting here thanks to the FA Cup.

Sydney FC may be the best team in Australia but have a tough group with the champions of Japan and Korea.

Yokohama coach Ange Postecoglou will be desperate to beat the Sky Blues next week.

Jeonbuk Motors may have lost their Brazilian star Ricardo Lopes to China last week but have played more games in this tournament than any other and usually get to the pointy end. 

Shanghai SIPG have firepower that any other in Asia would love to have thanks to star imports Hulk and Marko Arnautovic.

While this year's Champions League is already looking like a very different beast to usual campaigns, it is time for another Australian success and it may well be time for Melbourne Victory to finally show Asia what the country’s biggest club is made of.