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AFC Cup zonal semi: Looking ahead to how Macarthur match up with Malaysian powerhouse

Connor Bunnell new author
Roar Rookie
11th February, 2024
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Connor Bunnell new author
Roar Rookie
11th February, 2024
22

Macarthur FC’s maiden voyage into continental waters will pick back up Tuesday night in Campbelltown, where they’ll face Malaysia’s Sabah FC in an AFC Cup ASEAN zone semi-final. In that spirit, let’s take a quick look at how the Bulls got here, who’s lining up opposite them, and what lies ahead if all goes according to plan.

Group F: Macarthur’s past success

Let’s not undersell it—the Bulls absolutely raged through Group F. Not only did Macarthur take first place, they played some of the most dominant soccer in the entire group stage, posting 23 goals scored and a +18 goal differential, both of which were the best of all group stage participants. Had it not been for the Cambodian humidity visibly exhausting them when they visited Phnom Penh Crown, the Bulls might well have run off with all 18 points.

Ulises Davila of Macarthur FC yells at his teammates

Ulises Davila of Macarthur FC. (Photo by Damian Briggs/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As you’d expect from their goal count, Macarthur have been scoring early and often, but the scariest thing about their attack might be the sheer variety of potential threats. Over half the Bulls’ roster notched at least one G/A over the course of Group F, including everyone from Valère Germain, who spearheaded the charge with four goals and four assists, to Jerry Skotadis, who put one past Shan United’s keeper to secure his first ever goal in an A-League uniform.

On top of that, the Bulls consistently dominated possession throughout their games, saving themselves considerable trouble on defence and contributing to their four clean sheets.

That said, this game won’t be played in a vacuum, especially not on three days’ rest from their tussle with Melbourne Victory. When Macarthur finished their group stage games in December, they were sitting undefeated atop the league table, but a subsequent three-loss skid knocked the Bulls off that pedestal.

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Fortunately, they’ve since recovered from that bad bounce, keeping themselves on track for a spot in the finals series, while Ulises Dávila and Valère Germain each posted their first A-League hat tricks. All in all, the Bulls should be able to walk into this semi-final with a decent amount of momentum at their backs.

Sabah FC: The present threat

In the 2022 AFC Cup, Kuala Lumpur City survived Group H to reach the knockouts, where they battled all the way to the finals before running out of gas on their home turf, allowing Omani club Al-Seeb to claim the crown jewel of a historic treble. Now, another Malaysian side, Sabah FC, is attempting to surpass that incredible run, and they’ve gotten off to a stronger start by conquering Group H outright, putting them on a collision course with Macarthur.

Star striker Darren Lok has been key to Sabah’s success, scoring six of the team’s 19 goals—good for third-most overall and first among players from clubs in their home country—as well as providing two assists.

But the Rhinos’ true offensive mastermind is Indonesian winger Saddil Ramdani, whose six assists tie him with Odisha’s Ahmed Jahouh as the AFC Cup’s reigning princes of playmaking. Half that total came from the masterpiece Ramdani painted against PSM Makassar, where he sauced up a trio of assists, including both halves of Lok’s brace. Other players to watch out for include Brazilian defender Gabriel Peres, who scored thrice in the group stage; Peres’s countryman, veteran midfielder Ramon; and Daniel Ting, fresh off helping Malaysia take a shocking point off South Korea in the Asian Cup.

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While Sabah have been more than capable on the attack, their defence is a shakier proposition. The Rhinos wrapped up Group H with a +10 goal differential but allowed nine goals themselves, second-worst among all group stage survivors, and only managed one clean sheet. They also ended their group on a home loss to PSM, the team they’d previously dominated on the road, and were generally much less effective when playing from behind, as they dropped both games where the opposition scored first.

If any luxury is on Sabah’s side right now, it’s prep time. Their last game, a 2-1 friendly victory against Romania’s Rapid Buçuresti, was over a month ago, so barring a last-minute injury, the Rhinos will have every possible man rested and ready to go.

AFC Cup: The future pathway

On paper, Macarthur are the clear favorites here. They played better than Sabah in the group stages, winning both more often and more convincingly. However, that’s no reason to get complacent. The defence will have to remain stout, keeping Lok from seizing windows of opportunity and denying Ramdani the passing lanes and crossing opportunities he thrives on. On the other side of the ball, the Bulls will need to exploit the cracks in the Rhinos’ armour and summon the kind of explosive offence that made Group F such a breeze. Making the next round is a straightforward task; it’s just a matter of execution.

Thanks to how the knockout stage is structured, whoever wins this match will have a uniquely long road ahead of them. First, they’ll host the ASEAN zonal final —which, if Macarthur advances, means either a rubber match against wild-card winners Phnom Penh Crown or a bout with Central Coast Mariners, who made an impressive run of their own to win Group G. Either way, the zonal champions will pocket a little over $150,000 just for getting that far. They’ll then play an early March two-parter against Indian side Odisha, who won the lone South Asian group.

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Survive that, and an April aggregate awaits against either Abdysh-Ata Kant, the Central Asian champs from Kyrgyzstan, or Taichung Futuro, the Taiwanese top dogs out of East Asia. Finally, the winners of that game will travel to West Asia to face that zone’s champions on May 5 for over $2 million and a place in history as the final club to lift the AFC Cup.

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