Has the ACL returned to the A-League menu?

Goal Mouth - Opinions & Features | One keen observer looks at the growing significance and importance of the AFC Champions League to Australian clubs.

The Western Wanderers 1-0 victory over China-s Guizhou Renhe in Guiyang capped off the most successful week for Hyundai A-League clubs competing in the Asian Federation-s Champions League (ACL).

It came on top of the Central Coast Mariners knocking over reigning J. League Champs Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-1 in Gosford and Melbourne Victory grabbing a dramatic 2-2 draw in Melbourne over South Korea-s mighty Jeonbuk Motors. Is it possible that these results signal a resurgence of the fortunes of A-League clubs in this competition, and reflect their renewed appetite for the ACL?

The brief history of A-League clubs in the ACL features many ups and downs. It all began with a bang in the maiden 2007 season where Sydney kicked off with an audacious 2-1 victory over Shanghai Shenhua in Shanghai. Ufuk Talay-s 35 metre screamer that night ignited hopes that all games would produce such elation.

When the Sky Blues hosted Urawa Red Diamonds a month later at the SFS, Australian football was provided with another delectable entrée when 22,000 fans witnessed an effervescent 2-2 draw. This fixture presaged the boundless possibilities of the ACL. From the staggering professionalism of Urawa arriving with a 30 player strong squad and extensive support staff, to the way they gradually wrestled possession and the match from Sydney, overhauling a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2 it was apparent they were a travelling benchmark for club football in Asia. Throw in an away bay overflowing with red and black swathed passion, the ACL promised a tantalising cocktail.

However as Adelaide were discovering, the ACL was a competition of many complexities, and not one that could be taken at face value. During their debut match, a see-sawing battle at Hindmarsh Stadium, it became apparent that no matter how hard the Reds blew at the door of Shandong Luneng Tiashan, the visitors from China were not going to buckle. Their frustration at their inability to impose themselves on their visitors was apparent, as they succumbed 0-1 to a Valkanis own goal conceded in the 47 minute. Shandong-s ability to run down the clock once they gained their lead personified the challenges Australian clubs have faced in trying to match opponent-s armed with technique and schooled in guile.

The fortunes of Adelaide and Sydney in that inaugural season of competition would reflect the fortunes of most A-League campaigns. Despite grabbing home and away draws against Urawa, Sydney fell 1 point from progressing from the group stage, with their slip up occurring in a steamy Manaban Stadium against Persik Kidiri. Forced to play in oppressive afternoon heat after the previous evenings deluge had flooded the pitch, Sydney suffered a costly 1-2 defeat. Urawa advanced to be crowned club Champions of Asia.

In the following season-s 2008 edition of the ACL the Reds excelled during a punishing round of home and away fixtures, buoyed by ever growing home crowds. For a moment it looked like Adelaide had unlocked the secret of the ACL. However, when the Reds were summarily dismantled by the regal Gamba Osaka the gulf between the home team and the visitors was cruelly evident.

In the seasons since A-League clubs have struggled to unlock the challenges of the ACL. From competing against clubs playing star recruits on wages higher than entire A-League rosters, to coping with climatic conditions in time zones that demand exhausting travel schedules, our locals have found the ACL tough going.

Amidst a slew of disappointing results a genuine sense of confusion amongst the clubs and their ambitions in the ACL has developed. This was personified by Melbourne Victory-s ambivalent participation in the 2010 tournament summed up by captain Kevin Muscat-s comments, "To be honest, playing in Asia, is not all that enjoyable”.

It is to be hoped that this week-s results reflect the re-ignited passion of the locals. In the long run the ACL will provide Australian club football with the type of competition it needs to prosper at a higher level than it now enjoys.

One is tempted to recall the troubled path of English football in the now flourishing European Champions League. It is almost impossible to believe that no English team was amongst the original 16 participating clubs in the first European Cup of 1955-56, or that when Manchester United entered the following year as England-s first representatives they faced fierce opposition from the English FA. At the time Matt Busby was a lone voice who understood what European football could provide for English clubs.

And make no mistake, the Asian Champions League offers the same type of stimulus to Australian club football that its European counterpart has provided for the continent. The powerhouse clubs of the ACL represent the future of Asian club football. One only has to look longingly at the 20-35 million dollars- worth of talent in Sanfrecce-s squad, or the world-s best practice facilities developed at Urawa Red Diamonds to understand how high the bar is being set. And little wonder that teams like these can produce football of such technique, precision and imagination that A-League clubs are struggling to keep up.

The Asian Champions League reflects the very best of playing, coaching, planning and professionalism in this region. This week-s results shows that it is possible to succeed despite the high stakes involved. Perhaps the Australian clubs can take heart from the fact that it wasn-t until the 1967-68 final that Manchester United finally brought the Cup back to English shores. If we steal from this example, it took the might of Manchester United 12 years to snare the big prize of European football, Aussie clubs need to get cracking!