How serious are we about the AFC Champions League?

Australian clubs need to get out of their comfort zone and come to terms with the fact that playing in the A-League and in Asia at the same time is all part of the modern game.

western sydney wanderers

The Wanderers' match against Urawa drew a sparse crowd Source: Action Plus

Playing twice a week for a short time is not the end of the world as some would have us believe.

Coaches should acknowledge this and stop panicking whenever they are forced to play three games between one weekend and another.

The three A-League representatives in this year's AFC Champions League fielded depleted sides in their first matches of the competition. It came as no surprise to anyone that the outcome of their first foray into Asia was negative.

Even though the Australian teams were at home, Western Sydney Wanderers and Adelaide United lost heavily to Japanese duo Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka respectively while Brisbane Roar were held to a goalless draw by Thai tyros Muangthong United.

Facing the J.League's finest is tough enough as it is, let alone when you do so without your strongest teams.

The Aussie trio conceded seven goals and failed to score once against technically superior and vastly more affluent opponents that do not have salary caps to contend with as their restricted A-League rivals do.

It's not exactly a level playing field for sure and the three results do not augur well for the Australians' prospects in the competition. Two of the visiting teams - Urawa and Gamba - have yet to start their domestic league season while Muanthong kicked off their campaign less than two weeks ago.

Coaches Tony Popovic, Guillermo Amor and John Aloisi clearly did not feel that they could afford to field their best line-ups when important league matches are just around the corner and the finals are coming up fast.

This scenario has led fans and the media to believe that A-League clubs were not treating the Asian competition as seriously as they say they are.

Australian fans for some reason are no big fans of midweek matches and their perception of the quality or appeal of Asian football is, with a few exceptions for the very best teams, lukewarm to say the least.
I do not necessarily think this is fair or right but unfortunately that is the way it is in Australia and it hard to break down barriers.

The last thing supporters need when tossing up whether to go to the football midweek is the expectation that their favourite team might not be giving themselves the best chance of winning the game by fielding their strongest side.

Hence the disappointing crowds that watched the games at Campbeltown (5590), Brisbane (4536) and Adelaide (5071).

Coaches, to be fair, are under far more pressure to succeed in the A-League than in Asia.

The Champions League is generally treated as the sort of competition which you'd love to win but which would be no big deal if you did not survive the group phase.

You see, no Aussie club is expected to prevail against the rich guys from Japan and China so there exists a valid, convenient and ready made excuse for failure.

Which is why no sensible coach would risk the displeasure of his club by putting all his eggs in the wrong basket.

This is a defeatist attitude and is precisely the reason our approach and mentality at club level must change sooner rather than later if we are to make meaningful headway in Asia.

Reaching the final or winning it should be close to the norm not a rare exception.

With China emerging as a new power on the continent, we cannot keep saying that if the Wanderers can do it so can the other A-League teams.

Okay, the logistics Aussie clubs have to deal with are considerable. Distances, travel and short turnarounds can be a major problem.

On Saturday for example, Brisbane entertain Wellington Phoenix, Adelaide are away to Melbourne Victory and the Wanderers play at Perth Glory.

And to be fair, other Asian clubs have also fielded depleted sides when asked to make the long trip to Australia in the middle of their domestic commitments.

But, as Mark Bosnich so rightly pointed out on television this week, playing after three days is very manageable for most professional teams in the world. Many clubs have to play 60 or 70 matches a season not the 40-odd games the A-League clubs have to play.

Our clubs must bite the bullet and go for broke in both competitions and some help from Football Federation Australia and Fox Sports in terms of scheduling would be more than welcome.
Clubs must be in a position to be able to field their strongest teams in the ACL with no risk of physical consequences which, dare I say, could well be mostly in the mind.

Sydney FC's highly regarded head of sports science Andrew Clark recognises the particular problems associated with playing in Asia but he said they are not insurmountable.

"If your travel planning is meticulous and increases in training loads happen months in advance, Aussie players can manage two games a week for a given time," Clark said.

"Of course, when you have ridiculously short turnarounds it's a different matter. The salary cap makes it difficult for our clubs to build big competitive squads."

Brisbane two weeks ago showed how strong Aussie clubs can be when they stunned Shanghai Shenhua 2-0 away. So did Sydney FC a year ago when they overcame Guangzhou Evergrande at home.

So Aussie clubs have proved that they are more than capable of surviving in Asia as long as they give it their best shot.

In so doing, they would stand a big chance of progressing as far as possible and secondly they would earn the support of their fans who turn up in numbers at the weekend but do not feel so inclined in midweek.

Yet if the teams keep treating the Champions League as a sort of 'distraction' and the fans continue to stay away, there will be considerable sporting and economic losses for your clubs.

Of course, there are benefits from playing in Asia. The ACL is a perfect platform for boosting one's brand in a vast and hugely populated continent and it gives our players the chance to improve their overall standards.

But if second-string sides get smashed on a regular basis, our stature in Asia would not be enhanced one bit and I'm sure the psychological damage that heavy defeats would cause on our young players could be considerable. 

The bottom line is if we are in Asia we should give it our best shot.

Anything less would defeat the whole purpose of taking part.

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6 min read
Published 23 February 2017 at 4:36pm
By Philip Micallef
Source: SBS