Adelaide, Brisbane, WSW Asian failure needs to be the exception, not the rule
It all started so well. In February, Brisbane Roar travelled north to Shanghai cast in the role of sacrificial lamb but ended up ruining the Chinese coronation of King Carlos Tevez.
The Serie A player of the year in 2015 had won league championships in Italy, England, Brazil and Argentina and was Shanghai Shenhua's new star, reportedly the highest paid player in the world. With no away leg for the Chinese Super League team, a place in the group stage was surely theirs. Yet Brisbane won 2-0 to silence the Hongkou Stadium and excite Australian fans.
With three teams in the group stage, the A-League had Adelaide United and the Western Sydney Wanderers -- two teams with plenty of experience in Asia -- and this Roar team seemingly capable of going anywhere on the continent to win. There was a genuine hope of progression even with the uncertain domestic form of the first two. After all, domestic struggles can actually be a boon in Asia where not many teams manage to challenge well on both fronts.
Asia is tough in terms of logistics, especially for Australia. The distances are, of course, long, hard and tiring. The midweek journey sandwiched by weekend domestic commitments are a killer and any points picked up are hard-won indeed. But then, Australians have an advantage too.
Japanese, Chinese and Korean teams often, though not always, rest players for their long trips Down Under and this presents opportunities for points. The East Asians do, however, tend to select their strongest XIs at home.
That Western Sydney rested players for their opening game was disappointing. The schedule is tight but nobody knows better than WSW boss Tony Popovic as to the rewards that Asia has to offer after winning the competition in 2014. Resting players in Japan is one thing but at home is another. Brisbane also fielded a young side at home to Muangthong United and were rewarded with a goalless draw.
If you can't field your strongest team in the opening game at home then it is hard to expect the same away. And those opening results had the Aussies playing catch-up and things went from bad to worse on a cold East Asian winter evening.
Hulk and Oscar were sublime that night and it can be frustrating for Aussie teams to face over $150 million of talent when they operate under a salary cap of less than two percent of that figure, but Shanghai staff were surprised at how easy it was after expecting the dogged determination of past Wanderers teams.
And so, after two games, Australia's competition was as good as over.
Only Adelaide looked likely and showed glimpses of the character that took them to the 2008 final.
The 2-1 loss to Jiangsu Suning in China was unlucky but there was real fight on display when the Reds fought back to earn a point against Jeju United at home before going on to win in Korea. It was just a bit too little too late but at least the South Australians were still alive going into the final game.
The frustrating part should be that there were opportunities. The quality in the ACL Champions League group stage this year has been mixed. Shanghai SIPG have been the standouts with Urawa looking sharp too. Other than that, there has been nothing unbeatable, even the big-spending Chinese clubs Guangzhou Evergrande and Jiangsu have looked vulnerable.
Western Sydney were in the toughest group but didn't get going. It was not the performance expected of past champions. The schedule and financial excuses remain pertinent, but there were similar challenges in 2008 when Adelaide reached the final and six years later when the Wanderers walked away as champions -- one of the great football stories in recent history. And it was the same last year when both Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC reached the knockout stages.
Now, we sit in the unfortunate position of having to wait a year for Australian teams to test their mettle on the continent again. Adelaide were representing the A-League as champions yet that had been achieved almost 10 months before the 2017 Asian Champions League kicked off. By the time Gamba came to town for the opening game, the Reds had spent months struggling at the very bottom of their domestic competition. Much of their title-winning team from the season before had been lured away by the bright lights of Europe, or Asian and Aussie rivals with deeper pockets.
Sydney and Melbourne gave it a good go in 2016 and should do so again in 2018 with coaches who -- assuming they are still in place -- have experience in the competition and a desire to go far.
One season can be written off as an aberration. But Melbourne and Sydney have to ensure the feat is not repeated -- it's the least that Australia and the Asian Champions League deserves.
John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.