Reigning domestic league champions Sydney FC are gone, Melbourne Victory are hanging on by the skin of their teeth and Perth Glory remain winless in five.
That is the scenario facing the three clubs heading into Matchday 6 of the 2020 Asian Champions League, with the group stage approaching a conclusion. In fitting with recent performances, it appears likely that no Australian club will sneak into the final 16, bar a stunning win by Victory tonight.
Just eight times have teams managed that feat since A-League clubs joined the fray in 2007. Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC both managed to advance in 2016, Adelaide United has done so three times (2008, 2010, 2012), the Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets existed beyond the group stage in 2013 and 2009 respectively and the Western Sydney Wanderers marched all the way to the trophy in their title year of 2014.
Prior to the 2020 edition Australia’s domestic clubs have had 39 cracks at the competition for those moderately successful eight trips to the knockout phase.
Across that period, 218 matches had brought just 65 Australian wins and produced a -79 goal difference that reflects the generally unsuccessful campaigns undertaken.
As Asian football continues to truck along at a seemingly exponential rate, recent Australian performances in the competition have slumped to a new low. In fact just eight wins have been recorded by Australian clubs since 2018 from a collective 43 matches.
Of the 138 goals scored in those games, just 53 have been converted by A-League clubs at a goal difference of -32.
They are the most sobering of ACL statistics and ones that bring many to express a view that Australian clubs are wasting their time attempting to compete in Asia’s most challenging and difficult league to win.
In truth, if the chances of winning are the measuring stick by which those people assess the ‘point’ of A-League clubs competing, I guess they may well be right.
As it stands, Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory and Perth do not possess a squad of players capable of playing the consistent mid-week football required to defeat the top teams in Asia.
However, were football teams to withdraw from competitions based on the realistic assessment that they were no chance of winning it, world football would look very different.
The EPL would be a small six team elitist farce, Juventus and Bayern Munich would have had no one to play against for near a decade and the World Cup of football would shrink considerably; potentially down to a eight to ten-team tournament where the rest of the world would stay home knowing they did not have a hope in Hades.
Of course, that is just nonsense. Competing hard only when one knows that the chances of success are high is the antithesis of sport.
As is any notion that A-League clubs should be doing anything other than fiercely competing in Asia, potentially using the fairy tale of the Wanderers as a template for their hopes and application.
More often than not, Western Sydney’s success will remain well out of reach for the Australian teams who manage to qualify.
That fact is reflected clearly in the decrease in the number of automatic qualification spots allocated to Australia in 2021; due to poor performances, just one team will earn the right to automatically compete and two other clubs will have to find their way to the tournament proper through the play-off rounds.
If anyone is surprised or disappointed by the entire situation, they shouldn’t be.
Of the 32 clubs involved in the 2020 ACL tournament, the three Australian based clubs have rosters valued at near one fifth of those most likely to compete for the title.
Popular online football tool Transfermarkt.com ranks the three Australian clubs in the bottom six in terms of the overall value of their playing personnel and with powerhouses such as Shanghai SIPG, Guangzhou Evergrande, Al-Hilal and Beijing Sinobo Guon possessing plenty of individual talent worth millions, it is little surprise that Sydney, Victory, Perth and others, have struggled.
Whilst not wishing to sound defeatist and always remaining open to another fairytale occurring, the harsh reality for Australian ACL teams is that they are way off the pace when it comes to seriously competing for an Asian title.
I wish it wasn’t the case, but it is. Yet, leaving the competition or taking it any less seriously than the clubs currently do would be counter-intuitive.
The move into Asia was made to advance Australian football; providing more consistent play against quality opposition. As a by-product, World Cup qualification became a little easier (emphasis on little) yet on the down side, it is now as plain as day that ACL success is something well beyond Australian clubs in the current climate.
We shouldn’t lament that fact, instead taking on the challenge as best we can. There will be another title somewhere down the line for an A-League club. Someday, somewhere.
Yet it won’t happen with hamstrung, salary capped Australian clubs competing against the might of a cashed up and briskly expanding Asian football sector.