SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – It really has been tough at the top for the Western Sydney Wanderers in the months since becoming the first Australian club to win the Asian Champions League title.
Struggling and in last place in the domestic A-League with one win from 16 matches, the Wanderers travel to Japan’s Kashima Antlers on Wednesday to kick off the defence of their continental club championship. No team has won back-to-back ACL titles in the last decade, and the Wanderers appear to be at long odds of ending that drought.
The Wanderers, who beat Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in a two-legged final last November, have landed in a tough group that includes 2013 champion Guangzhou Evergrande, 2014 semifinalist FC Seoul and Kashima, the most successful team in J. League history.
“Group H is clearly going to be a very strong group but at the Wanderers we relish challenges and welcome this one with open arms,” the club’s chief executive John Tsatsimas said.
The Wanderers defeated Guangzhou and Seoul on the way to the title last year, claiming the biggest prize in Asian club football in only its third year of existence.
Kashima has the chance to give the Japanese game a welcome boost. The Japanese national team has been a disappointment to fans in recent times, leaving the 2014 World Cup without a win and exiting the 2015 Asian Cup in January at the quarterfinal stage, its worst showing since 1996. Since then, Javier Aguirre has been fired as coach and no replacement has been appointed.
The Asian Champions League is also making it more difficult for Japan to find a new head coach. Michael Laudrup, coach of Qatari club Lekhwiya, told Japanese media recently that he is focusing on the continental club competition and is not interested in the vacant Japan job.
Japanese clubs have failed to reach the Asian Champions League final since 2008. Gamba Osaka was champion then and returns to the tournament along with 2007 winner Urawa Reds and Kashiwa Reysol.
The strongest challenge could come from China. Guangzhou Evergrande may have lost Marcello Lippi as head coach but the Italian has been replaced by his 2006 World Cup winning captain. Fabio Cannavaro is bidding to add a fifth successive domestic title to Guangzhou’s trophy cabinet while lifting the big-spending club, boosted by the arrival of highly-rated Brazilian Ricardo Goulart signed in January for around $20 million, to a second continental title.
Other Chinese clubs have been spending, too. Guangzhou R&F, led by former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson, beat Australia’s Central Coast Mariners in the final playoff for ACL qualification earlier this month. Beijing
Guoan takes on Brisbane Roar in the opening round.