History against Australian clubs in ACL
Australia's three AFC Asian Champions League participants will have history against them as they attempt to compete on two fronts over the next few months.
Australia's three AFC Asian Champions League (ACL) participants will have history against them as they attempt to compete on two fronts over the next few months.
Western Sydney Wanderers, Melbourne Victory and Central Coast Mariners will be stretched to the limit until the end of April as they compete in the ACL group stage and head towards the A-League finals, which are set to begin on April 17.
With all three teams in the top six heading into round 20 of the A-League, domestic silverware remains on the radar for Messrs Popovic, Muscat and Moss.
But if the head coaches of the Wanderers, Victory and the Mariners prioritise success in the A-League, they should expect to miss out on the knockout stages of the ACL.
Since Sydney FC and Adelaide United became Australia's maiden ACL participants in 2007, only five A-League sides have advanced out of their group from 14 opportunities.
Adelaide have done it on three occasions, including Australia's best two performances in the continental competition - runners-up in 2008 and the quarter-finals in 2012.
The Reds' success in Asia underlines the difficulty of performing on two fronts.
When Adelaide topped their ACL group in 2008, the South Australian outfit had finished sixth in the eight-club A-League and missed the finals, meaning they had almost two months to freshen up before their Asian campaign began.
In the 2011/12 A-League season, Adelaide finished ninth in a 10-team competition, well adrift of the finals placings, ensuring they could prioritise their two ACL fixtures held before the end of the domestic campaign, knocking off Bunyodkor away and Gamba Osaka at home.
With eight rounds of the domestic league remaining, up to three finals and six ACL group stage matches, Western Sydney, Melbourne and Central Coast could play 18 times from this weekend until the A-League Grand Final on May 4 - approximately one game every four days.
Such a rate of games is a regular occurrence in Europe but the difference for Australian clubs is the size of their squads (just 23 players in the A-League and 25 in the ACL), plus the distances involved.
It is not uncommon for Hyundai A-League clubs to spend a full day in transit to get to an ACL away fixture, which wreaks havoc with recovery plans and training when playing two matches in a week.
At the start of April, Victory are set to play three away games in the space of 11 days, travelling to Japan to take on Yokohama F. Marinos, before visiting Newcastle and Wellington to face the Jets and Phoenix respectively.
The Mariners have been handed the biggest trip of the Australian clubs, as they must travel 8,718 kilometres, as the crow flies, to play Beijing Guoan on March 19.
The one positive for Tony Popovic, Kevin Muscat and Phil Moss is that Central Coast proved last season that simultaneous success in Australia and Asia is possible.
The Mariners became the first A-League club to compete in the finals and advance out of their ACL group at the same time, winning the Grand Final and reaching the Round of 16 in Asia.
But even then, the Gosford-based outfit had some luck, scraping into the knockout stages with just seven points from six games - the equal-lowest tally of any 2013 ACL participant to advance.
The critical victory for Central Coast came in Gosford on April 3 against Guizhou Renhe.
Mariners head coach Graham Arnold played his strongest team - having rested the likes of John Hutchinson and Trent Sainsbury in the final round of the A-League four days earlier - knowing his team would get a rest in the first week of the finals due to their top-two finish.
It is unlikely Victory and Central Coast will have that luxury this season, as they are likely to be fighting for a finals berth until the last round.
The Wanderers may be in a better position to rest key players on the domestic front, as they look set to finish second, while Popovic, who has made it clear the ACL is a big priority for Western Sydney, has been rotating his squad throughout the A-League campaign.