Australia in the Asian Champions League: half-time review

With three of six matches played, it seems fitting to take a breather and assess Australia’s inaugural ACL campaign. Due to the vagaries of Asian Football Confederation deadlines Aussie teams are stuck in a one-year lag, with the Premiers (Adelaide United) and Champions (Sydney FC) of the previous season competing in this year’s cup. Consequently it’s all a little weird, with the embattled Sydney squad of 06-07 playing top Asian sides based on the performances of the unButchered, Dwight-enhanced team of 05-06, while Adelaide were thrust into battle with Chinese Super League champions Shandong Luneng barely a fortnight from their 6-0 humiliation at Telstra Dome*. For both sides it’s been the proverbial crucible, and the results have been decidely mixed.

Lest anyone forget, this is uncharted territory for any Australian domestic football team, and these two teams have been put into
draws with super-teams from mature, successful leagues (particularly the J and K-Leagues) unhindered by anything approaching the A-League’s $1.7 million salary cap – indeed, most of Sydney and Adelaide’s opponents field players worth more than either side’s squad put together. ANZAC Tests they ain’t.

First, the groups:

With only the topmost team qualifying for playoffs, Adelaide have effectively kissed their chances of qualifying from group G goodbye a week ago when they failed to defend a 2-0 lead against Seongnam Chunma Ilhwa*, whose subsequent equalisation dudded both sides, each now stranded five points behind Shandong Luneng who hammered V(for Vietnam)-League champs Gach Dong Tam Long An** 4-0 to go three wins in a row. It was a match Adelaide will rue, as Young Socceroos Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite (think Mark Viduka born in the USA via Cote d’Ivoire and Togo) combined brilliantly to bamboozle a veteran Korean defense (each must wonder how they didn’t score a brace apeice) only for the visitors to claw their way back with some pacy flanking in the second half.

Sydney’s position in group E is salvagable but salvation is no longer directly in their hands. Sitting at third with four points from a win, draw and loss following their 2-1 defeat to Persik Kediri, the inaugural champions now need to win every match and hope either Shanghai Shenhua or Persik ambush Urawa Red Diamonds in either side’s home match in order to qualifiy. As it happens, they too will be mourning a 2-2 home draw, in this case last month’s match against Urawa, who were let back in the game after an uncharacteristic fumble from Sydney’s form goalkeeper, Clint Bolton, after the home side had gone up 2-0 in the first twenty-three minutes; David Carney nabbing the opener in inside 56 seconds from a piercing Mark Milligan pass.

Already it is apparent that playing in Asia is challenging venture: Sydney FC have now played matches in sub-zero temperatures in Shanghai and last week at Solo City they braved 33ºC and 85% humidity on a pitch that was fit for scuba diving only the night before due to monsoonal rains – to deleterious effect.

Also playing on the coaches minds will be the physical mismatch between many Asian players and the direct, physical style of play favoured by Australian sides, which has contributed to more than a few lopsided foul sheets; though few referees have exhibited the one-eyed prejudice that characterised Australia’s World Cup campaign. However the low yellow card threshold, where two seperate yellow cards in the group stage are enough to earn a one-match suspension has proved hazardous already: Sydney have already had two players suspended this way, which has cut a below-strength squad even further, while a similar threat looms over Adelaide.

In fairness, some of these lessons could only be learnt the hard way, and both teams can fairly claim to have been hobbled by Cranky Coach Implosion Syndrome prior to their campaigns, yet already several issues have emerged in both side’s campaigns particularly as concerns preparation, fitness, discipline and acclimatisation, all of which need to be addressed if Australian sides are to prosper in the ACL.

* Melbourne, having sealed the competition’s first Double (oh how we hates them…) have qualified for 2008, and Adelaide, runners up in both categories will return as well. Don’t ask me wether that’s because they came second in the final or were runners up for the premiership. Please.

**a bizarre team in its own right: one of the premier K-League sides, with numerous titles, it is funded by the Moonies and draws an average crowd of just 7,000.

*** any suggestions on abbreviations, nicknames? I was thinking: ‘the Vietnamese Side With The Really Long Name I Don’t Have A Chance Of Pronouncing Correctly’…