You’d have got long odds at the start of the season on Central Coast Mariners coach Mark Jackson staring down the ladder at Tony…
For the first time since 2016 – and second in history – there are multiple teams from the A-League competing in the knockout phase of an AFC club competition. Both Macarthur FC and Central Coast Mariners finished on top of their respective groups in the AFC Cup at the end of last year which sees them progress to the ASEAN zonal semi-finals. It also presents the opportunity that if both teams win their respective ties this weekend, they will play each other in the ASEAN zonal final. This would result in two Australian teams competing against each other in an Asian competition for the first time.
While the success of the national team within the confederation has been evident since the get-go, the success of A-League’s sides in AFC competition has always been hard to come by in comparison.
Outside of the underdog tale of the 2014 Western Sydney Wanderers that won the AFC Champions League, only one other side has made it beyond the quarter-finals in an AFC competition. In fact, before this season, out of the 40 appearances that A-League teams have made since their first appearance in 2007, only eight have got out of the group stage.
It has always been a challenge for A-League clubs who are restricted in terms of a salary cap to compete with the likes of J-League and Chinese Super League teams who can spend far more money on players. And given the lack of interest amongst fans and coaches, it has become less of a priority for A-League teams over the years as they focus on their domestic season.
However, this year has provided a unique opportunity for Macarthur FC and the Central Coast Mariners to be able to match the achievement of Western Sydney’s 2014 win. And we have Covid to thank for it.
Since the FFA entered the AFC in 2007, no A-League side had played in the AFC Cup until this year. But, due to recording zero coefficient points in the 2020 and 2021 seasons as a result of the A-League withdrawing due to COVID-19 concerns and, by essentially skipping those two seasons, Australia’s coefficient ranking would drop down to 23rd overall and 10th within the east section. This would make them eligible for the competition as they fell out of the top five nations within East Asia. This would see the usual qualifying round spots in the Champions League for the Australia Cup winner in Macarthur FC and the second-placed A-League team last season in Central Coast being given direct spots in the group stage of the AFC Cup instead.
As a result of those Covid-affected seasons which saw the A-League not compete for two years, it sees Australia misplaced in ranking. Despite being ranked 23rd for this iteration of the AFC Club competitions, they will bounce straight up to a coefficient ranking of 11th in the 2022 AFC Club rankings for next season. This is due to a new AFC coefficient ranking calculation involving the last eight years excluding the 2020 season which includes the 2014 season, compared to the previous four seasons which did include 2020 for the 2021 club rankings.
It has created an almost perfect storm for both Macarthur FC and Central Coast that will not be seen for a while if ever. It is unlikely that an A-League side will have an easier run in terms of competition to win a continental title given the competition they face in the AFC Cup. Australia would be ranked third within the ASEAN zone in which they played their group-stage matches against sides from the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, etc.
With this competition, Macarthur would break the record of most points in an AFC group stage by an Australian team with 15 points alongside a +18 goal difference with Central Coast closely followed by 13 points and a +14 goal difference showing the level of dominance both teams had in the AFC Cup.
In comparison, Australia’s ranking in this year’s Champions League would be third last in the East Asia zone as Melbourne City got knocked out in the group stage.
And with next season bringing in the new AFC Champions League Elite, Champions League 2 and AFC Challenge League to revamp the club competitions within Asia, Australia’s allocation will reduce from three to two teams overall. With these spots only being in both ACL Elite and ACL2, it will see the A-League play far harder opposition than what has existed in the AFC Cup making it much more of a challenge to replicate a 2014-type success.
Now, undoubtedly the path that Central Coast and Macarthur would face would still be a difficult one. Being in the ASEAN zone, they will have to go through four rounds of knockout football consisting of an ASEAN semi-final and final as well as the inter-zonal playoffs even to make the final. Considering that the teams in the west, central, south and east zones would only need to face two rounds to get to the final, it will mean both sides will be taking the well-travelled path in comparison.
Adding to the fact that only one team in its twenty-year history has won outside of the West Asia Zone, it will be a challenging test for either side if they can make it beyond the ASEAN zonal final and into the inter-zonal playoffs.
But if either Central Coast or Macarthur can get to the inter-zonal play-offs, then there is no reason why they can’t be the first A-League team in ten years to win a continental title and demonstrate the A-League’s potential heading into the next era of Asian club football.