The draw for the 2012 AFC Champions League is out and the good news for Brisbane Roar fans is it could have been worse. After avoiding the obligatory “group of death,” Roar fans can start planning their trips to China, South Korea and Japan in the knowledge they’ll be facing some of Asia’s second-best teams.
They start off with a home clash against Japan’s Emperor’s Cup winners, with the final of Japan’s oldest sporting competition set to take place on New Year’s Day. The Roar may have avoided facing the J. League’s newest champions Kashiwa Reysol, Nagoya Grampus and perennial Asian heavyweights Gamba Osaka but there are still plenty of big guns left in the Emperor’s Cup draw, including Japan’s most successful club Kashima Antlers, the ever popular Urawa Reds and cup specialists Shimizu S-Pulse.
Ange Postecoglou at least knows the composition of the rest of the group and Matchday 2 sees the Roar travel to the Workers Stadium in Beijing where they’ll take on 2009 Chinese Super League champions Beijing Guoan. Coached by former Portugese international Jaime Pacheco and with a squad containing Australian striker Joel Griffiths – for the time being at least - this season Guoan saw their status as the nouveau riche of Chinese football usurped by the mega-rich Guangzhou Evergrande, who won the 2011 league title at a canter.
Ulsan Hyundai hail from a slightly more humble background and after slogging their way through the K-League playoffs, the team from South Korea’s industrial heartland may find the ACL a tough ask. They’ve got a couple of useful stalwarts including captain Kwak Tae-Hwi and former Reading and Fulham striker Seol Ki-Hyeon in their midst but after losing the recent K-League final to 2011 ACL runners-up Jeonbuk Motors, they’ll need to step up a gear on the continent.
It doesn’t help that Ulsan play out of the cavernous Big Crown Stadium. With an almost 45,000 seat capacity, it’s rarely more than one-third full and attendances will be even smaller for midweek Champions League fixtures. Beijing Guoan should fare better in the attendance stakes – much better, in fact – but unless Urawa Reds win the Emperor’s Cup, then Suncorp Stadium won’t be the only venue to offer the backdrop of empty seats.
In fact, the Champions League has largely failed to capture imaginations on the sprawling continent, although the wild semi-final brawl between Suwon Bluewings and eventual winners Al-Sadd generated a bit of interest in this year’s competition.
It’s a shame Brisbane won’t get to test themselves against the likes of J. League champions Kashiwa Reysol or K-League winners Jeonbuk – drawn together in Group H alongside Ghangzhou Evergrande and the unlucky winners of the Thai Premier League – although the reigning A-League champions are in with a good shout of progressing beyond the group stage.
That’s perhaps more than can be said for a Central Coast Mariners side drawn with Nagoya Grampus, 2010 ACL winners Seongnam Ilwha and Chinese combatants Tianjin Teda, while Adelaide United face old foes Gamba Osaka and Uzbek giants Bunyodkor, as well as a yet to be determined playoff winner.
On the whole, Brisbane fans should be happy with the draw and realistic about the Roar’s chances of progression. Several big guns have been avoided, tricky trips to some far-flung destinations have been ruled out and there’s still a chance a second division side (or better yet, third tier Matusmoto Yamaga) could win the Emperor’s Cup.
All in all a good’s night work for Ange Postecoglou and his side didn’t even kick a ball.