Opinion

A-League clubs pay the price for poor Asian Champions League performance

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It is five years since Western Sydney Wanderers pulled off one of the greatest achievements in the history of Asian football and defeated Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia to become continental champions.

If this newly formed club could defeat some of the best and most prestigious names around Asia then surely others in the A-League would follow suit. 

That has not been the case at all. The A-League has had two automatic entrants in the group stage since the Wanderers broke the hearts of Al Hilal but the impact on the tournament has been negligible. 

In four of the five tournaments since, there was no Australian interest in the knockout stages. For a leading nation in Asia, it is very disappointing.

Only 2016 bucked the trend. Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory got out of their respective groups.

They were a little unlucky in the round of 16 - Sydney went out on away goals to China’s Shandong Luneng while Melbourne were narrowly defeated by eventual champions Jeonbuk Motors. 

But chronic poor performance in the competition has its consequences. Australia was fortunate to be ranked fourth in the eastern zone in the AFC’s Club Competition standings in December 2017 when calculations were made.

That gave the A-League two automatic spots in the group stage and one play-off place until 2020.

Yet the end of 2019 would see the spots re-allocated. At the start of the tournament however, Thailand have moved above Australia, winning points in the standings by winning points on the pitch.

It meant that this past year, Sydney and Melbourne had a big job to do. They had to perform well and make sure that Australia could move back above Thailand otherwise, the country would lose one automatic place. 

Amazingly and embarrassingly, these two giants of Australian football did not record one single win in the group stage.

When something special was needed, nothing at all was provided and that was that.

Next year will be the last one for a while that the A-League will have two automatic participants. 

Australia will still have the possibility of the same number of teams. The allocation has gone from two automatic and one play-off team to one automatic and two play-off teams.

In theory, there could still be three but in practice, well, history is against the A-League. 

Of the five play-off entrants since the Wanderers won, only one team - Brisbane Roar in 2017 - have navigated through the stage and into the groups. The other four fell by the wayside.

If that trend continues then Australia is going to have just one team in the group stage for some time to come and if that team struggles then the coefficient will drop even further and the prospect of returning to two teams recedes further into the distance. 

The drawbacks to reduced participation are obvious. It hurts the country’s standing. Australia should be at the forefront of Asian football at all levels and it deprives players, coaches and fans the chance to experience Asian opposition.

Not just that but the tournament provides entry to the expanded Club World Cup, a tournament that really could take off. 

The only thing to do from now is to do better. Starting from next year, Perth Glory and Sydney have to be at their best, rack up the wins and go as far into the tournament as possible and Melbourne must focus on the play-offs.

The Champions League should become a bigger priority with less rotation and resting of players.

The A-League has to help the club to help the A-League. And the team (in 2020) and the teams (in 2021) that enter the play-offs have to move hell and high water to get into the tournament proper. 

Three committed Australian teams in the group stage giving everything they had would surely get the A-League back up where it belongs.