Friday, April 13, 2007

Aussies out on their feet

Aussies out on their feet.
It's fair to say the first few matches of the 2007 Asian Champions League has been a steep learning curve for all involved down under - and not just the clubs although they've certainly had their eyes widened over the past month or so. The general public, football fans and even the media are all the wiser having been indoctrinated in the ACL experience.

Two months ago, the sweeping perception in Australia was that all Asian sides were nippy and elusive and playing there meant invariably battling extreme heat and humidity. Some of these preconceptions have proved correct, of course. But the Australian footballing fraternity now knows for certain that it's going to take a greater degree of seriousness to prevail in the AFC's elite competition.

The Socceroos might be ranked No.1 in the region, but A-League representatives Sydney FC and Adelaide United won't be anywhere near the ACL knockout phase when it begins in September.

Both sides have equal records at the midway point of the group stage - four points from a win, a draw and a loss - with both languishing in third place in their groups. Sydney are three points off the pace in Group E after wilting in the heat of Central Java and losing 2-1 to Persik Kediri on Thursday. Adelaide are five points off unbeaten leaders Shandong Luneng in Group G after they only drew 2-2 with Korea's Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.

This week's disappointments fairly well tell the tale of Australia's fate in its maiden Asian adventure. If championship-winning coach Ernie Merrick is taking notes ahead of Melbourne Victory's foray into the ACL in 2008, top of his list might well be fitness and preparation.

There are some hindrances which Merrick will just have to contend with - as Sydney and Adelaide have this time around. That includes the timing of a tournament which, while A-League officials insist on synchronising with the European domestic league and away from the local football codes, will always profit Asian sides. Australian sides will only benefit from starting the ACL group phase in the domestic break if they can somehow find their way into the knockout stages (which start around the beginning of the A-League season).

This gripe in some way explains the failings of both sides in terms of match fitness. Any coach will tell you playing top-level competitive games once every two or three weeks is never enough. But that shouldn’t hide the substandard stamina levels shown by the Aussie teams in their outings.

Sydney, who we mustn't forget defeated Shanghai Shenhua in the opening round in freezing conditions, allowed Urawa Reds to peg them back from two-goal advantage on matchday two and even scored first against Persik before losing. Adelaide also let a two-goal cushion slip this week against Seongnam

Another potent statistic on the declining influence of the Australians as matches progressed is that in three away games neither Sydney nor Adelaide scored in the last 60 minutes of play. This flaw is inextricably linked to the playing conditions both sides have found it impossible to overcome on away legs.

Sydney were virtually dead on their feet before half-time this week against Persik, or approaching midday local time in the Indonesian sauna. The game was reduced to walking pace as the sun baked the visitors, and towards the final throws it was not a matter of whether the Indonesian champions would win, it was a question of by how many. And this despite claims by Sydney coach Branko Culina in the build-up that his side could handle the heat. Adelaide similarly struggled in Vietnam last month.

This presents a real problem for the Australians. In theory similar conditions could be simulated in the local government-funded institute of sports. But then again Australia's a big country. Even a training camp in the nation's north would have provided some semblance of adjustment for the teams from the southern states of New South Wales and South Australia where the locals are currently enjoying mild autumnal weather.

However, the lack of fitness has been more brutally exposed by the laughably light squads nominated for the ACL group stage by both clubs. February's deadline for closing playing rosters came and went without the Australians - who were restricted to 20-man A-League squads - adding the necessary reinforcements. Even though the 2007-08 domestic season will allow 23-man squads, both Sydney and Adelaide went in with just 20 players, many carrying knocks from the recent domestic campaign.

Add to that the usual procession of post-season comings and goings at each club and rushing unfit players back from injuries and the recipe for non-qualification was completed. There are a multitude of lessons to be learned before the Aussie clubs try again in 12 months time. They've returned with their tails between their legs in 2007, but don’t expect them to make the same mistakes again.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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