Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Victory require a change in attitude towards Asia

For the third time in four years Melbourne Victory will participate in the showpiece Football tournament of our region – the AFC Champions League.

Expectations were high heading into the Victory’s first campaign, and the club approached the campaign with much excitement and expectation and the fans came out in force for their first taste of Champions League football.

On the whole, it was a respectable effort by the Victory, finishing second in Group G behind eventual champions Gamba Osaka. At that stage, AFC Champions League rules meant only the top team from each group advanced to the Quarter Finals.

The Victory may only have won the two games, but they showed respect for the competition and averaged a healthy crowd of 19,023 across their three home games.

The 2010 campaign could not have been any more different.

The Victory, unlike their 2008 campaign, were in the middle of a A-League finals campaign and faced a schedule that demanded a lot of the players.

But the attitude was different; this time around the club viewed the AFC Champions League almost as a distraction, and the excuses were rolled out from before the group stage even began. Victory admitted defeat before they even started.

And it showed in the results.

A 1-0 loss away to Beijing Guoan was by no means a horror start, and it could have been so much different had Victory converted one of numerous golden opportunities in the final few minutes.

A loss at home to Seongnam, who again like Gamba in 2008 went on to become eventual champions, was compounded by an embarrassing 0-4 loss away to Kawasaki.

The Victory’s only win of the campaign would come against Kawasaki in Melbourne, with Kevin Muscat converting a relatively soft penalty. But for large parts of the game the Victory were under attack and had Mitch Langerak to thank for keeping them in the game.

The club’s pathetic attitude rubbed off on the fans, with an average gate of only 6768. In fact the aggregate gate across all three games (20,304) is only just higher than the average of their 2008 campaign.

The attitude of the Victory was expressed by captain Kevin Muscat after the final home game against Beijing.

"To be honest, playing in Asia, is not all that enjoyable," he told Fox Sports.

"People going down left, right and centre, stalling for time, it's not that enjoyable playing in the Champions League,” he added.

"I think it's evident for people to see. Being involved in it and watching it I can understand why people don't come and watch. People going down... it just seems that authorities can't take control."

It was an embarrassing outburst and one not forgotten by most Victory fans who are now demanding that Muscat not take part in the upcoming campaign given his obvious dislike for the tournament. His shaky form and susceptibility to the quick, crisp movement of the east Asian teams is another factor.

That brings us to 2011.

The official draw for the 2011 AFC Champions League was conducted in Kuala Lumpur last night and the Victory, who qualified as runner-up of the A-League, will, in a strange twist, face the runner-up from the J.League, K-League and Chinese Super League – Gamba Osaka, Jeju United and Tianjin TEDA.

Victory and Gamba Osaka have history, dating back to the 2008 campaign. The two teams played out a thrilling contest at Docklands, with Lucas netting an 89th minute winner for the Osaka outfit.

The Brazilian won’t be back to trouble the Victory this time around, with Gamba confirming that the Brazilian will be cut loose at the end of their current campaign.

But in Takashi Usami and Shoki Hirai they have two young and dangerous strikers, and if a play for Deznan Radoncic, currently at this year’s ACL winners Seongnam, comes to fruition they’ll posses a strike force that strike fear into the Victory’s defence.

In another little quirk, two of Victory’s opponents (Gamba Osaka and Tianjin TEDA) are from cities that have a Sister City relationship with Melbourne.

The draw hasn’t been easy to Victory, but it hasn’t been bad to them either. They won’t face the champion team from Japan, Korea or China as they have in previous seasons.

But all that will be academic unless there is a drastic change in attitude.

Sure, the AFC Champions League may only be in its infancy is a truly professional competition, but to show the disrespect towards the competition that the Victory did last year sends a bad message to the rest of the Asian football fraternity.

With the first game, a tricky trip to Osaka, just over two months away it remains to be seen how Victory will approach this year’s competition.


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