Future remains bright for A-League clubs in ACL

Asian football correspondent John Duerden looks at the positives that can be taken from a disappointing week for Aussie clubs in the AFC Champions League.

It was a cruel night for Sydney FC in the AFC Champions League but the tournament at least showed fans in Australia the kind of drama it is becoming increasingly famous for before departing these shores for another season.

If there is any consolation, albeit of the painful kind, it is this: the Sky Blues were disappointed not to make the last eight. Given the rising standards in the competition this is something to be celebrated.

The 2-2 draw in the second leg was a thrilling affair and only a last-minute super strike from Hao Junmin enabled the three-time Chinese champions to squeeze through on away goals.

“I am so happy to score that goal,” Hao told Chinese media. “We all thought that we were going out of the competition but I had a little space and tried with a shot. Fortunately, it went in.”

Despondent Sydney FC players react after Shandong scored a late equaliser in the ACL.

Hao, who pops up with a a spectacular strike from time to time, dedicated the goal to his father who died last year. “We did not give up even after we missed the penalty. We still knew we could do it and we fought together as a team. It was a team goal.

“It was a really tough game but now we can look forward to the quarter-finals and we hope that we can continue in the competition as much as possible.”

Coach Mano Menezes was a very relieved man. Had Hao not come up with his blockbuster then Shandong would have been heading back home with just a relegation battle to look forward to.

"From the first minute we knew this would be an exciting game,” said the former boss of the Brazil national team. “We conceded a goal after two minutes, which as the away team made it more difficult. After that, I was happy to equalise and make it a draw.”

“At the start of the second half, we faced the same problem, conceding again and then we missed a penalty. We used our spirit, good technique and tactics to fight to the end. The result is a result for China, Jinan, the staff and supporters.

“When I heard the final whistle I felt very happy. I felt happy because we got the victory to go through to the next stage and I am happy for my players.”

The message from Shandong was that the team could now focus on improving its poor league form in the three months before the tournament restarts.

Melbourne pushed Jeonbuk all the way the previous evening. After the first leg ended 1-1 in Australia, the second leg, against a team looking to reach the last eight for the seventh time,was always going to be tough.

Victory striker Besart Berisha tries to beat a couple of Jeonbuk defenders in South Korea.

Leanardo scored Jeonbuk's only goal in the first leg and came up with two equally fine strikes at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium. Besart Berisha gave the away fans something to cheer about with a very well-taken goal with seven minutes remaining. In the end Jeonbuk won 2-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate.

Try as Kevin Muscat's men might, they could not get that second goal that would have put Melbourne in the quarter-final.

“You know that every game against an Australian team is going to be a hard-fought game and we had to keep going until the very end because Melbourne kept going,” said Lee Dong-gook, the veteran Korea Republic star who has scored more goals than any other player in the AFC Champions League. “We are very happy to get into the last eight.”

Had things gone just a little differently, both Sydney and Melbourne could now be looking forward to quarterfinal ties. With the standard of the AFC Champions League improving year on year, that would have been an impressive feat.

The experience will stand both in good stead.