Why it's make or break for A-League clubs in Asia

Keisuke Honda with his Victory teammates Source: Getty Images AsiaPac

For many fans in Asia, the big Australian teams are not Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC but Adelaide United and Western Sydney Wanderers. In the 2019 AFC Champions League this has to change for the sake of all the A-League.

Victory and Sydney have ten continental appearances between them and have survived the group stage once each. If they fall at that hurdle once again, fans of these domestic rivals should stifle their sniggers and unroll their eyes as it could reduce everyone’s opportunities. 

Australia was fortunate to be ranked fourth in the eastern zone in the AFC’s Club Competition standings in December 2017. That gave the A-League two automatic spots in the group stage and one play-off place for the 2019 and 2020 editions.

At the moment however, Australia have fallen into fifth behind Thailand and if Melbourne and Sydney don’t get some points on the board in terms of their groups and coefficients then the ‘two plus one’ will likely become ‘one plus two’ (one automatic and two play-off spots) from 2021.

Suffice to say that it would not be a welcome development for Aussie football.

The pressure is now on Melbourne and Sydney to show Asia that they are the standard-bearers for the A-League, not Western Sydney Wanderers who won in 2014 and Adelaide, finalists six years earlier.

As it stands, those two campaigns mark the only times when Aussie teams have made a serious impact. Twelve years after Australian clubs entered the AFC Champions League, the report card reads ‘Must Do Better’.

The Reds and the Wanderers have done their bit but others have not built on that success.

I remember talking to Aurelio Vidmar minutes after the game in Changchun Yatai when the Reds blazed a trail into the knockout stage 11 years ago. There was real pride as well as a sense that Australian teams had arrived in the competition. Yet there was subsequently little to write home about until the famous Wanderers win in 2014.

There has been little since then and now Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC certainly have to step it up.

There has been much said about the salary cap preventing A-League clubs competing on an even keel but the exploits of Adelaide and the Wanderers showed that it can be done. There don’t have to be demands for the title but it is time for one to reach the last eight at least.

That Aussie clubs have struggled somewhat has also been put down to the fact that the Champions League starts almost a year after the Aussie teams qualify. Not ideal perhaps but talk that teams are a year past their peak suggests that the coaches and players have little responsibility for being able to stay strong and competitive for more than a few months.

After years of experience, both Melbourne and Sydney should be able to handle the challenges. The travel distances do make things tricky but also provide opportunities.

Chinese, Korean and Japanese teams, who start the tournament with a certain amount of rust as their domestic seasons begin to kick-off, tend to rest a number of their stars for their long trips south. This gives opportunities for home points.

That is certainly the case for the two opening day opponents this season. Victory provide the first-ever opposition for Daegu FC in the competition. The South Korean’s (whose sky blue kit may bring out the best of Melbourne’s players) seventh-place finish last season (out of 12) equalled their best ever, just two years after promotion to the top tier.

The FA Cup winners owned by the city, the third biggest in the country, have always been short of cash but usually play a more attractive passing game than the average K-League team. They would be delighted with a point.

Elsewhere in Victory's group, China’s Guangzhou Evergrande are not the force they were even a couple of years ago. There is also no reason to be fearful of Japan’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima, a team that has struggled in its Asian adventures.

Melbourne should be looking at going deep.

Sydney have a tougher task but should be able to start with a vital three points at home to Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i.

The Tigers won the title in 2012 with a wage bill but have never been one of Korea’s biggest clubs. It was a well-organised team with an experienced Korean spine and much remains the same but the quality is not what it was.

Chinese and Japanese champions in Shanghai SIPG and Kawasaki Frontale should be trickier but these are the challenges that big teams should welcome.

And it is time for Sydney and Melbourne to show they can be big teams in Asia, for their own sake and that of Australian football.