A-League teams in danger of elimination in ACL
Australia's Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory face likely elimination in the Asian Champions League if they lose this week, putting pressure on the A-League clubs to avoid another disappointing campaign on the continent.
After three matches, Sydney has two points and is second from the bottom in Group H, while Melbourne has a single point and is last in Group E.
The eight Japanese and Korean teams, meanwhile, are in much better position heading into this week's matches.
Only Japan's Gamba Osaka is struggling, having lost two matches thus far. The 2008 champion needs a victory at home against Jeju United of South Korea to improve its chances of getting through.
Thirty-two teams from all over Asia are split into eight groups of four, with 16 progressing to the knockout stage. The top two teams in each group will advance.
Of the two A-League teams, Sydney's prospects may look brighter, but its remaining three games are all away from home, starting at Shanghai Shenhua on Tuesday and then at the Suwon Bluewings of South Korea and Kashima Antlers of Japan.
Kashima beat Sydney 3-0 last week in Australia.
''It's definitely not over for us yet,'' said Sydney captain Stuart Musialik. ''We've played three games in a row at home and we've only got two points, but we won't give up the current situation.
Sydney right-back Shannon Cole believes the Australians can get a good result against Shenhua following their 1-1 draw with the Chinese side earlier this month at home.
''We had the better of that match, and were unlucky not to win, but we know we have to put them away this time around,'' he said. ''We're not dead yet, not by any means, but we'll have to be at our best.''
Melbourne is in a similarly dire situation. The team was thrashed 5-1 in its opening match at Gamba Osaka, costing coach Ernie Merrick lost his job, then lost 2-1 at home to Jeju United under caretaker coach Mehmet Durakovic.
Only a hard-fought draw at Tianjin Teda has kept Melbourne's slim hopes alive. The Victory hosts Tianjin on Wednesday.
''We are still bullish on the qualification outlook. We still have chances,'' Durakovic said. ''We'll go home and prepare for the home game against these guys on April 20. If we can get a couple of wins under our belt, it's open to everybody.''
Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 and made its first appearance in the Asian Champions League the following year. Adelaide United made the final of the 2008 tournament, but Aussie teams have struggled since then.
One stumbling block for the teams has been the timing of the Champions League. The end of the A-League season comes after the deadline for registration for the Asian tournament. Consequently, A-League teams that win a title at home have to wait more than a year to play in the Champions League and many struggle to hold on to their best players. This is especially tough for A-League clubs that operate under a strict salary cap of AUS$2.35 million (US$2.48 million).
''The main issue Australian clubs have is the long lead time between qualification and the tournament proper,'' said Craig Foster, a former Australian player and chief soccer analyst for Sydney sports network SBS.
''Unfortunately, in the 12-month period between qualifying and competing, many of the entrants have become significantly weaker, including the two current representatives.''
Foster said the top teams from the 2010-11 season should be allowed to play in the Champions League instead.
''Simply put, were Central Coast Mariners and Brisbane Roar to be representing the A-League, they would be stronger, in better condition having played to the very end of the finals series,'' he said.
Defender Sasa Ognenovski, who went to the 2008 final with Adelaide and also captained Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma of South Korea to the 2010 title, said most A-League clubs also don't adapt their games when playing against Asian teams.
''Coaches have gone in to Asian games with pretty similar tactics as what they play in the A-League and it doesn't work as well in Asia,'' he said. ''We played a similar style at Adelaide, but we were more counterattacking. We did a lot of defensive work and work on our shape and winning the ball.''
''If you try and play one-for-one against the strong Asian teams, then more often than not you will end up losing. I think it all comes down to the tactics.''
In other matches this week, J-League champion Nagoya Grampus plays K-League champion FC Seoul in Korea, and Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates faces China's Hangzhou Greentown, with Al Ain needing a win to keep its hopes of advancing alive.
Sepahan of Iran and Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia both have nine points from three games and could secure their spots in the second stage with wins over Al Gharafa of Qatar and Al Wahda of the United Arab Emirates, respectively.