One of the quirks of the Australian A-League is that qualification for the Asian Champions League, with group stage matches kicking off in early March just before the season finishes, features the previous year’s Minor Premiers and Grand Final winners. And so it is that for the 2011 Asian Champions League Australia’s two representatives are Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, who fought it out to penalties in the Grand Final of the 2009/10 season having gone head-to-head and neck-and-neck for most of the regular campaign. Worthy entrants indeed but now, a year later, the duo enter the tournament from the less enviable positions of fifth and ninth respectively, having suffered a tough domestic season.
Not is all lost though. As the finals slipped away from Sydney’s grasp, focus was appropriately shifted to their upcoming Asian adventure, and likewise for Melbourne who managed to make it to the first round of finals matches before being dispatched by Gold Coast United, giving themselves a good period of preparation for the challenge ahead. With the best of the Asian leagues involved, it is no surprise to see battle hardened teams from China, Japan and South Korea limbering up. In Group E, Melbourne start off in Japan against Gamba Osaka before hosting Jeju United of South Korea and finishing off in China against Tianjin Teda.
Melbourne will be hoping for a better run than last season, when they managed just one win and a draw in their six group matches, and indeed even a better showing than the last time they met Gamba Osaka in 2008, where they lost both home and away to the much favoured Japanese team who went on to lift the trophy. It is a tough task for Melbourne, taking on the second placed teams from Japan, South Korea and China, but they do have some hope. Coach Ernie Merrick has been ‘putting the band back together’ with goalscorers Archie Thompson and Robbie Kruse both fit and present to start, with the exciting Isaka Cernak also available after signing from North Queensland Fury.
The ability to sign players specifically with this competition in mind is a great boost for Merrick, who has been able to identify the issues arising through the season and address them. Former Perth goalkeeper Tando Velaphi is great cover on the bench and the continued inclusion of Kevin Muscat means the Australian side will have leadership and experience at the back, even if his plans to retire in May remain in the offing. For Merrick this may be the last time he has his preferred first choice squad fit and available before Muscat calls it a day and Kruse completes his expected move to Europe.
The first match against Gamba Osaka in Japan will be a good barometer for how Melbourne’s campaign will go. The Japanese side will not have kicked a ball in anger for a little over two months and should be rusty. And with Thompson supported by Danny Allsopp and Kruse up front, Merrick is promising an all-out attacking display, and against the less than match fit Japanese, will hope it will be enough to get their campaign started on the right track.
For Sydney, their Group H campaign starts at home with a visit from South Korea’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings before a trip to Kashima Antlers in Japan, and then hosting Shanghai Shenua to round out the group; the return legs start in mid-April and the group will be settled in May.
Sydney finished the season strongly having gone unbeaten in their last eight games. As it became clear that qualification for the finals was highly unlikely it also became obvious that Sydney were working on establishing a functioning formula for this tilt at the continental title. With striker Bruno Cazarine extending his contract, midfielder Karel Kisel revealing he should be returning for the 2011/12 season and perhaps most importantly, coach Vitezslav Lavicka finalising an extension to his own contract, there are plenty of positives going into this campaign.
Lavicka has not been shy in the transfer market either, snapping up North Queensland Fury forward David Williams for the campaign, a player whose zip and drive will be much appreciated by a team who often looked ponderous on the ball this season. With Hayden Foxe now retired, Andrew Durante of Wellington Phoenix has also been drafted in to shore up the defence, although not every decision has been as easily explained. The call by Lavicka to leave Finnish striker Juho Makela out of his Asian Champions League squad was surprising, although the decision to give the overseas player spot to Cazarine is backed up by the statistics. Similarly for Sung-Hwan Byun, whose place has been sacrificed for the team.
The Bluewings, like Sydney FC, struggled on the domestic front last season, but won the FA Cup to secure their presence here and whilst the South Koreans have yet to claim any real success in the Asian Champions League, they do have pedigree in some preceding competitions, having won the Asian Club Championship and the Asian Super Cup twice. Coach Yoon Sung-Hyo is a former Suwon star and sparked a revival in their fortunes when he took over midway through last season.
This should be the easiest game in the group for Sydney, at home to on paper the weakest team, but not knowing what to expect will no doubt compound the nerves. After half a season of failure and an all too brief revival, Lavicka’s men have been waiting for the kick off in this game for almost two months. Failure would be the final nail in the coffin of a dreadfully unremarkable season.
Traditionally Australian teams have not fared overly well in Asia’s premier club competition, the big exception coming in 2008 when Adelaide United made it all the way to the final before succumbing 5-0 on aggregate in the two-legged affair.
Both Sydney and Melbourne will be hoping to do something similar. Melbourne certainly have the quality to make an impact, as long as everyone stays fit and the stop start nature of the competition doesn’t take the edge off their fluidity. For Sydney, it will be important to get off the mark fast, because this season has certainly suggested they are not equipped for playing catch up football. Both teams though go into the Asian Champions League hoping it will rescue an otherwise forgettable season.