Words by Martin Lowe
You could argue the international game in Asia is becoming a tad predictable, with the same handful of nations dominating the field leading to some clearly one sided results which again were evident in last month’s World Cup qualification preliminaries.
The club game however continues to throw up surprise after surprise, so much so that, as we reach the end of the group stage in the Asian Champions League on Wednesday, those assessing from within have become numb to even the biggest shock of them all, in the reigning champions exiting the tournament at the first hurdle.Those champions being Chinese giants Guangzhou Evergrande, twice winners in their last three attempts.
Their swift exit was unexpected for sure, but unlike any comparable story from Europe, where a club would be plundered into a so-called “crisis” with the manager’s future in question, Evergrande have stood firmly behind Scolari and have yet to really see a demonstrable negative impact on their domestic form. In fact, since the confirmation of their continental exit they have won both of their final games in the competition.
Continental importance is where the Asian version of the Champions League differs from its European equivalent. The pinnacle of European club football has always been the European Cup, and ever since the Champions League incarnation the money and attention available for even smaller clubs entering the group stages is enormous compared to most domestic leagues.
In Asia, there’s the opposite sense: crowds are usually smaller, the lack of prize money available lessens the incentive, and the large commutes even regionally often forces clubs to prioritise one competition over another.
AFC’s most recent incumbent Australia are a prime example. Continually a season of success domestically is followed up by disappointment on two fronts as they contest a much busier schedule including intense commute after intense commute.
Ever since qualifying for the group stages in 2014, Central Coast Mariners have gone into a downward spiral, while Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers were way outside the playoff hunt last year while kicking off their Champions League campaigns.
This season’s qualified duo from the A-League, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, had similarly poor league seasons on the back of their top 2 finishes last term, but are conversely flourishing in the Champions League making it through to the knockout stages for the first time in their short histories.
Whether this boost can see them regain some form in the new A-League season, or whether the curse of defending a title for Adelaide United will strike again for an Australian club as they prepare for continental football, will be particularly interesting to monitor.
Elsewhere in the Eastern region, simply spending shed loads of money has been quite clearly demonstrated to not guarantee immediate success as Jiangsu Suning followed Guangzhou out of the tournament, leaving half of the four-team cohort in what was supposed to be the Chinese Super League’s dominant sweep of a season.
Western media have already jumped all over this after much was made of Alex Teixeira and Ramires choosing to move East rather than stay in Europe. While the jibbing is picking at a sub-standard of football, with little motivation for such players even in the continental showpiece, this result probably points to the opposite.
These two players in particular have took to life comfortably in Asia, their team rides high domestically and in a couple of their Champions League group games they have clearly shown why Jiangsu paid top dollar for them both.
But in those games where they were muted, it had much to do with their opposition. The quality in organisation of teams such as Vietnamese champions Becamex Binh Dong in Jiangsu’s opening draw illustrated the wake up call some people need when considering Asian football.
The playing field in terms of wealth is weighted heavily towards those few leagues, however when 11 face 11 on the pitch the competition stands up as one of the most competitive in the world game.
In the West, we again saw the bigger teams struggle over the 6 game rotation. The established names such as Al-Hilal and Lekhwiya struggled initially before scraping through, while this and last year’s Saudi Pro League champions Al-Ahli and Al-Nassr both bowed out.
This left open the door to outsiders, El Jaish of Qatar proving deadly on the counter setting up a knockout tie with fellow Qataris Lekhywiya where they are now arguably the favourites, something few would have expected back at the turn of the year.
The most improved performance came from the Iranian teams who qualified two of their four sides for the knockout stages in top spot despite many worrying going into the tournament.
Zob Ahan, hardly a side full of continentally known names offered caution initially but finished in sensational style beating Al-Nassr of Riyadh 3-0, thusly topping the group undefeated. Tractor Sazi, all too often disappointing at this stage also saw and up turn in their fortunes usurping Al-Hilal and Al-Jazira away from home in their group.
The final note of turnaround came with another unbeaten side in Lokomotiv Tashkent, who dispelled the myth that an Uzbek charge can only come from one of the other capital heavyweights (Pakhtakor and Bunyodkor, who again failed to live up to the billing) to overcome and knock out ACL greats Al-Ittihad and Sepahan to go through with Al Nasr Dubai. From what was predicted ahead of the season has been well and truly turned on its head.
While Europe lauds another (predictable) all Spanish final, Asian followers snigger in the shadows. If you want a proper competition, where money doesn’t necessarily buy you instant success, where home advantage can count for little and offers a true chance for an underdog, head to Asia.