Since joining the Asian Champions League in 2007, Australian teams have struggled to make a huge impact on the tournament but that could be about to change.
Only Adelaide United (2008), the Newcastle Jets (2012) and the Western Sydney Wanderers (current season) have progressed from the group stages.
In this year’s tournament, the Wanderers sealed their place in the knockouts from Group H in style, signing off with a 5-0 win over Guizhou Renhe of China to secure top spot. However, Australia’s other two representatives – Central Coast Mariners and Melbourne Victory – came within touching distance of progressing before falling at the final hurdle.
The Aussie teams this time around set themselves up with clear game plan and the Asian teams are not used to it and struggle to break them down.
In their final Group F game, the Mariners needed at least a draw against Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima to progress.
With 20 minutes left in the game, the Australians were poised to achieve the result they needed until a deflected free-kick gave Hiroshima the win and confined the Mariners to bottom-place in the group.
Melbourne, meanwhile, lost out on goal-difference after being tied on eight points with Jeonbuk Motors in Group G.
The recent breed of Australilan coaches such as Ange Postecoglou and Graham Arnold have contributed to the gowing reputation of the A-League’s coaching standards.
Spain’s Josep Gombau has impressed at Adelaide and Brisbane’s Manchester-born Mike Mulvey has led the Roar to the summit of the A-League.
Rookie coach Kevin Muscat, who took the Melbourne Victory coaching job in October after Postecoglou left for the national team position, was contributed with out-thinking World Cup winner Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande in the majority of two matches played between the two teams. That serves as another endorsement of improved coaching.
Robert Cornthwaite played in the tournament for Adelaide before joining South Korea’s Chunnam Dragons in 2011, and the Australian international defender has been enjoying the sight of his countrymen showing what they can do.
“I think the biggest factor this season is that the Australian teams played with a clear structure and philosophy,” Cornthwaite told Al Jazeera.
“Korean and Chinese league games are often played at break-neck speed and a lot depends on individual brilliance or individual mistakes. The Aussie teams this year set themselves up with clear game plan and the Asian teams are not used to it and struggle to break them down.”
If Victory had been given the late penalty that many viewers think they should have been awarded in the final group game against Korea’s Jeonbuk Motors, then they could be preparing for a first ever appearance in the last-16.
|Australian teams’ ACL progress|
Team W L Pts
WS Wanderers (Q) 4 2 12
M Victory 2 2 8
CC Mariners 2 4 6
One good showing is not enough with A-League teams who are no pushing for increased consistency.
Cornthwaite, however, is still unsure whether better performances will increase the popularity of the competition in a country that still prefers to watch European football for entertainment.
“The fact that most of the visiting teams don’t have players the Australian public can identify with means that there is limited interest to attend the match,” said Cornthwaite.
“I’m not sure what the answer is to attract more fans to the games but it definitely helps the reputation of the A-League and Australian players in general.”
The salary cap – USD2.3m annually per squad – means that A-League clubs struggle to prevent their best players leaving for Asia, while not always being able to persuade talent to travel in the opposite direction.
For Australia’s eliminated Asian Champions League challengers, the semi-finals of the A-League’s Championship play-off series are now their priority. Melbourne face a tricky tie at league-favourites Brisbane Roar, while the Mariners take on Western Sydney.
When the draw is made for the the next edition of the AFC Champions League, expectations in Australia will be higher than before.