With Australia's entry into the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, clubs from the newly-formed A-League were given the opportunity to compete in Asia's premier club competition. In 2007, it was Sydney FC and Adelaide United who took part, the former coming a close second in their opening-round group behind eventual winners Urawa Red Diamonds. This year, Adelaide United is in the mix again, along with 2006/07 A-League champions Melbourne Victory.
Both clubs struggled in the 2007/08 instalment of the A-League. Adelaide, after a bright start, were hampered by injuries to key players, and could only manage a sixth-place finish. Melbourne Victory, after completely dominating the competition in 2006/07, also missed out on the four-team finals series.
Yet Melbourne managed to belie their domestic form in their first Champions League match, posting a deserved 2-0 home win over Korea Republic club Chunnam Dragons. Adelaide United found the going tougher away from home against Pohang Steelers, but also managed a 2-0 win despite being outplayed for large periods of the match.
The Australian contingent was brought down to earth on the second matchday, however. Melbourne Victory, wilting in the heat in the second half, slumped to a 3-1 loss in Thailand against Chonburi, while Adelaide had to be content with a 0-0 draw at home to Chinese champions Changchun Yatai.
Both Australian clubs in this year's Asian Champions League feature players whose reputations extend beyond their home country. Melbourne Victory's quick striker Archie Thompson was a member of the Australian squad at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, while their pugnacious captain Kevin Muscat had a long and distinguished spell in the Australian national team.
Adelaide United boast a number of younger stars, including powerful striker Bruce Djité and playmaker Nathan Burns. These two were key contributors to the Australian Under-23 side (the "Olyroos") in their successful qualifying campaign for the 2008 Men's Olympic Football Tournament. Adelaide's opponents will also have to be wary of winger Travis Dodd, who scored a memorable hat-trick in last year's Asian Champions League.
There is an international flavour to the Australian challenge as well, with Brazilians Cassio and Diego Walsh representing Adelaide United, and Costa Rican international Carlos Hernández in Melbourne's squad. Much to coach Ernie Merrick's dismay, however, the influential Hernández sustained a medium-term injury just prior to Melbourne's Asian adventure.
Step into the unknown
It is indeed an adventure for Melbourne Victory, many of whose players have not taken part in an international competition of this stature before. "I suppose we're travelling into the unknown," said captain Kevin Muscat prior to the Victory's opening game. "The AFC Champions League is exciting, it gives you something else to strive for."
Most of the players who took part in Adelaide United's first foray into the competition are still at the club, and their experiences last year, including the first-up home loss to Chinese side Shandong Luneng, have chastened them. "Not knowing too much about the teams and the competition, we fell a little bit short," said coach Aurelio Vidmar, referring to their 2007 campaign. "If you lose your first one, to play catch-up is almost impossible."
Adelaide United have so far avoided the necessity to play catch-up in 2008. Despite their home draw with Changchun Yatai, they remain on top of Group E, and they can certainly draw on last year's experience on the third matchday, 9 April. They travel to Vietnam, where they gained a win on the road last year, to face bottom-of-the-table Binh Duong.
Melbourne have a challenging assignment in their next game, facing Group G favourites Gamba Osaka at home. They can, however, count on fanatical home support at the 56,000 capacity Telstra Dome, where they have based themselves since late 2006.