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Asian Champions League

Asia’s Top Tier Still Looks Bridge Too Far for A-League




With the Asian Champions League group stage now at the half way point some order is beginning to emerge from the chaos. The tragedy of the Japanese earthquake means there have been some fixture issues, but by and large these have been dealt with.

For the Australian teams the Asian Champions League has been anything but inspirational, with both Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory struggling for form. For Sydney in particular, with three home games already played, the two points gained lend little hope for their progression in this tournament. Melbourne may have just one point from three games, but at least the side have two home games to come.

Only two clubs have picked up maximum points so far: Sepahan of Iran and Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia. The latter are perennial powerhouses of this competition, having won it twice and been beaten finalists two seasons back. Flexing their muscles at home with a 3-1 win over Piroozi Athletic, the Iranians backed it up with away wins over Uzbeks Bunyodkor and Al Wahda of the United Arab Emirates. Sepahan’s pedigree however is less impressive, with just a single final appearance in 2007, but a 5-1 thrashing of Al Jazira in their second game was a highlight and helped them achieve the highest goal tally thus far.

In the roughly East Asian side of the draw there are no stand-out performers, but three Korean teams lead their groups and it is hugely likely that all eight qualifiers will come from China, South Korea and Japan. Melbourne, currently without a manager having despatched with Ernie Merrick following a less than stellar domestic season, have played one team from each and only come away with a single point, away to Tianjin Teda where the evergreen Kevin Muscat equalised in the second half. A 5-1 drubbing by Gamba Osaka in Japan and a 2-1 loss at home to Jeju United means they are left needing some very favourable results in the group.

 

Quite why Melbourne are not performing in this competition is a pressing issue, and Victory did face similar troubles last season after a good domestic campaign. It could well be that the team started their downward decline last year in the Asian Champions League and a subsequent poor A-League season was just an extension of this decline; a slump still unarrested as they enter this competition again. And stand-in coach Mehmet Durakovic may well not have the wherewithal to lead this team of ageing egos. A core contingent of the team is the wrong side of 30, and young star Robbie Kruse, who is in any case about to depart for Germany, warmed up for the last of these games with a series of long haul flights to take part in Australia’s international match with Germany.

Perhaps then the rebuilding process that is clearly needed once a new manager is found may be too pressing to allow success here. Victory went to Tianjin Teda knowing that a point would be the bare minimum they could afford to gain. They got it, meaning their struggle is all uphill, but not completely in vain. Stand-in coach Durakovic is certainly not giving up hope. "A win would have been a fantastic result and we deserved more than a draw, but it’s in our hands", said the coach. "We’ll go home and prepare for the home game against these guys. If we can get a couple of wins under our belt, it’s open to everybody."

For Sydney, also in the Asian Champions League off the back of a rotten season in the A-League, the chance of doing well in this competition always seemed slim. Having struggled all year, a turnaround in the continent’s top tier tournament was unlikely. With Alex Brosque departed and Finnish striker Juho Makela left out of the squad, getting goals was always going to be an issue with an over-reliance on Bruno Cazarine. Nonetheless, an opening 0-0 against Suwon Bluewings was creditable, with plenty of chances at each end and a clear strategy revolving around Nick Carle as the lynchpin of the attack.

The side’s next game saw Shanghai Shenhua visit and Sydney will have been within their rights to feel very aggrieved with the result; not because they were superior to Shanghai, but because the Chinese leapt to the floor at every opportunity, slowed the game down, kept things scrappy, started going down with protracted cramps from the 50 minute mark and in other professional ways kept Sydney from dominating the game. Colombian striker Duvier Riascos scored for Shanghai early on only for Carle to quickly equalise following some sparkling build-up play. By the second half it was a different ball game -certainly not football – and a costly miss from Cazarine in the 56th minute was a rare chance in an entertaining, albeit frustrating, fixture.

Come round three and the visit of Kashima Antlers and Carle was out injured. Sydney, in truth, were out-thought, out-played and ultimately beaten fairly by three goals at home, Kashima sticking to a containment game plan and hitting Sydney on the break three times down the inside left channel. Too fast, too smart; the Japanese didn’t even need to get out of third gear to achieve their result. At the top end of Asian football, clubs are a class above the Australian teams and it will be interesting to see how Brisbane Roar perform next year, assuming they can keep their squad together, and their dazzling playing style.

Adelaide United’s feat in making it to the final in 2008 is looking all the more impressive in light of the difficulties being faced this year. Their 5-0 capitulation in that two-legged final should not take away from the long road there. The quality of the teams throughout Asia is high and Australian teams continue to look a little out of their depth. Importantly too, with the new A-League season pushed back until October, two group stage exits will see no Australian team in competition for almost five months; too long a wait. The odds may be long, but the desire is there for one or both of Sydney and Melbourne to perform a minor miracle and make it through to the knockout rounds.



Published: Monday, 18th Apr 2011