ACL set to pose scheduling nightmare for A-League

The Asian Champions League could create scheduling headaches for A-League sides this season Source: AFP

The A-League could be set for a serious scheduling nightmare with the group stage of the 2021 AFC Champions League set to clash with the final weeks of the regular season.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has been looking for ways in which its flagship tournament can be completed as safely and securely as possible in the midst of a global pandemic.

The AFC is trying to be as flexible as possible after the multiple postponements of 2020 as the coronavirus situation changed but the group stage of the eastern half of the 2021 competition has been lined up to take place in the final week of April and the first week of May.  

With six games to be played in a short space of time-not to mention quarantine requirements in place in various countries - it would leave clubs around the continent having to deal with a scheduling nightmare.

In 2020, teams from the eastern zone went to Qatar in November to complete the group and knockout stages but at the time Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory and Perth Glory had yet to start the 2020-21 A-League season. That will not be the case in April as the domestic season would be approaching its climax.

Sydney FC are the only Australian team sure of a spot in the group stage but the champions will be joined by Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar should the pair make it through the play-offs. All are likely to have some difficult decisions to make as to what kind of teams they send to compete.

For the AFC however, the tricky decision is not just when but whereas the tournament expands this year from 32 to 40 teams that are divided into ten groups of four. The plan is for a number of hub cities to stage the games but, at the moment, there has been no definite bid coming from the eastern zone.

That is not the case over in the west. Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host received plenty of plaudits last year for stepping in to host the tournament in a biosecure bubble, is ready to help out once more. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also indicated a willingness to do so. If no eastern host is forthcoming, Australian teams could, once again, be faced with the prospect of playing regional rivals in West Asia.

It has yet to be decided if the knockout stages, which are likely to start in August as national teams will be on 2022 World Cup qualification duty in June, are one-legged, as in 2020, or revert to the more traditional two-legged format. While teams from either side of the tournament usually meet in the final only, the plan this year is for east and west to mix from the quarter-finals at least.

The AFC Champions League is not the only Asian tournament to be affected. On Friday, the Tajikistan Football Association announced that the AFC U-16 Championships, due to be held in Bahrain in March and the U-19 edition, with Uzbekistan as host, have been delayed once more.

It remains to be seen if the tournaments, already put back from 2020, will take place at all, especially as this was to be the last in the current format with the competitions changing to U-17 and U-20 age levels from the next edition.