When last year’s A-League Men Grand Finalists Melbourne City and Sydney FC kick off their Asian Champions League campaigns this week there will be a new weight on their shoulders.
After the pandemic essentially forced Australian clubs to withdraw from the competition in 2021, A-League clubs face the proposition of not being granted any automatic entry slots to Asia’s premier club competition from 2024 onwards. Some deem the fairness and validity of the current coefficient system used by the AFC to rank leagues to be questionable at times, particularly given that Hong Kong sits in third place in East Asia, ahead of the likes of China’s financially powerful Super League.
However despite the rankings that have placed the A-League Men clubs in this intriguing position, the onus now must fall upon these clubs to improve their coefficient and allow the country to continue gaining access to the Asian Champions League. This is important because it allows A-League Men clubs to challenge themselves against Asian giants and provide a showcase of the league on a continental scale.
Fortunately, the cards appear to have fallen the way of the Australians sides in this year’s competition as Melbourne City and Sydney FC have been handed kinder draws than Aussie teams of the past.
While Sydney FC are unlikely to make it through to the knockout stage with their group containing Japanese giants Yokohama F. Marinos and two-time ACL winners Jeonbuk Motors, a face-off against Vietnamese side Hoang Anh Gia Lai looms as a winnable fixture for last season’s A-League runners-up.
Despite taking out the V.League Championship last season, Hoang Anh Gia Lai currently sit 9th on the table (in a twelve-team league), and are yet to win a match in the top flight this season. The side are led by Vietnam national team stalwarts Nguyễn Công Phượng and Nguyễn Văn Toàn while Brazilian Washington Brandão, who once played in the Danish second tier, now finds himself leading the line for the Vietnamese side.
Rounding out their foreigners are Kim Dongsu who transferred to Hoang Anh Gia Lai from the German fourth tier and Mauricio, a Brazilian defender who struggled for minutes in Brazil’s footballing pyramid.
In this sense, the Asian Champions League is a free hit for Sydney as they focus their attentions on finding the right formula to take them through to the end of a disappointing A-League season. A beacon of unpredictability this season, Steve Corica’s will hope to replicate their weekend form which saw them trounce Central Coast 5-0 while a performance similar to that of their midweek capitulation against Adelaide will leave them red-faced against an Asian giant.
However, where the opportunities truly lie are in Melbourne City’s group. The reigning A-League Champions and consensus best team in Australia have the opportunity to test themselves on a continental basis for the first time and will be edging to bounce back from a 3-0 defeat at the hands of crosstown rivals Melbourne Victory last weekend.
Standing in their way will be Korean FA Cup winners and K League 2 side Jeonnam Dragons, Filipino Champions United City and Thai Champions BG Pathum United. Upon first glance, it seems a very winnable group for a Melbourne City side that contains multiple Australian internationals.
BG Pathum United are likely to provide the sternest test for City, particularly given that they face-off against the Australian side in the first match of the group where City will be without starting midfield trio Aiden O’Neill (foot), Connor Metcalfe (COVID) and Florin Berenguer (hamstring).
The Thai side are currently 29 games into their season and sit second on the table behind Buriram United. The team’s main players include 111-time Thai international Teerasil Dangda who recently returned home after a couple of seasons in the J-League. He also played six La Liga matches in the 2014/15 season for Almeria and was once on the books of Manchester City as a youngster.
He typically leads the line with former Olympiacos and Palmieras centre-forward Diogo who has won the Thai League MVP award on two separate occasions following 45 and 43 goal seasons respectively. The Brazilian is a proven goalscorer and was once the target of a potential £12m transfer to Liverpool before the move eventually fell through.
The rest of their team is mainly comprised by Thai players, some of whom have been selected in the Thai national team who failed to qualify for the third round of AFC World Cup qualifiers after finishing behind the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Malaysia in Group G of round two qualifying.
Having miraculously defeated Daegu FC on away goals in the Korean FA Cup final, Jeonnam Dragons were granted a place in the Champions League despite being in the 2nd tier in South Korea. Currently in fifth place, Jeonnam will be led by former Georgia national teammate of the A-League Men’s very own Beka Mikeltadze in the form of Nika Kacharava who has played much of his career in Cyprus.
The final team in the group will be reigning Filipino Champions United City FC who were destroyed in last season’s competition by Daegu FC and Kawasaki Frontale who won 7-0 and 8-0 respectively.
Led by attacking fulcrum Mike Ott who has spent most of his career in the German fourth tier as well as Canadian goalkeeper Matt Silva who plied his trade in the Swedish fourth tier before moving to Canada, the current top team in the Phillipines struggles financially compared to their compatriots in Asia’s premier competition.
Fans of Australian football have often cited the disparity in financial power between A-League clubs and Asia’s elite as the root cause of their plight in the ACL. However, now that the shoe is on the other foot in that sense with the City Football Group-backed Melbourne City flying the flag for Australia, there should be no shying away from the expectations that come with it.
Put simply, given the respective standing of Melbourne City, in conjunction with the quality that they possess, the expectation, rightfully, is that they proceed through to the knockout stage in first place.
In the past, A-League clubs have cynically been accused of not taking the Asian Champions League seriously enough. This argument seems to be borne from failing to accept the fact that there exists stronger and more financially powerful sides in Asia that have simply proven to be more technically and tactically astute than Australian teams in recent iterations of the competition.
However, even the most staunch supporters of this belief surely could not use it as a stick with which to beat Melbourne City. For years, they have spent money on marquee players with the goal of showcasing themselves in this competition. They were denied the chance to compete when Australian clubs withdrew in 2021, so there should be an added fire in their belly now that their time has arrived to challenge the best teams in Asia.
It has been quite some time since a top quality Australian side was handed a kind group in the Champions League. Now is the moment for Melbourne City to capitalise and highlight the strength of Australian football to the rest of Asia who could be forgiven for thinking that the A-League’s quality has been on a steep decline given the plight of the Socceroos and the performances of Australian teams in the ACL in the recent past.
The task will be made harder by injuries, but great teams find a way to overcome adversity. Patrick Kisnorbo’s men have proven that they are a great team in the context of Australia. Whether that is reflected on a continental scale will be determined in the next two weeks as the side takes charge of Australian club football’s future in Asia.