ACL analysis: Aussie teams busting the budget myth

It’s time we stopped obsessing about the budgets of Chinese Super League clubs in the AFC Champions League, as results show they’re hardly relevant.

Gallery: Sydney FC defeat Asian champions

Gallery: Gamba Osaka v Melbourne Victory

Every time a Hyundai A-League club faces CSL opposition on the continental stage, the incredible financial disparity between the two teams is trotted out as seemingly the most important factor in the contest.

It’s as if we’re waiting for 100 yuan notes to step onto the pitch and score goals.

But if Australian football has been reminded of anything over the past fortnight, it’s that on-field success in the ACL comes down to more than just money.

Sydney FC again proved that timing, organisation and local talent can trump a hefty bank balance on Wednesday night, as the Sky Blues defeated ACL title-holders Guangzhou Evergrande 2-1 at Allianz Stadium.

Sydney FC players celebrate their ACL win over Guangzhou Evergrande at full-time.

Last week, Melbourne Victory won by the same scoreline at home against cashed-up Shanghai SIPG.

In fact, since the start of the 2013 ACL, which Evergrande won to claim their first continental title, A-League clubs have split results down the middle when up against Chinese teams.

Yes, without that money, CSL clubs wouldn’t attract the likes of Jackson Martinez or Alex Teixeira.

But as we’ve seen, big names from famous European clubs don’t always guarantee success in Asia.

So why do A-League sides continue to match their CSL counterparts?

Strike when the iron’s hot

With the ACL starting in the latter stages of the A-League season each year, Australian clubs have timing on their side in the group stage.

Evergrande visibly slowed in the second half against Sydney, with the CSL champions’ lack of match fitness arguably costing them a point as Milos Dimitrijevic struck a late winner for the home side.

Milos Dimitrijevic celebrates with teammates after Sydney FC's win over Guangzhou Evergrande in the ACL.

Wednesday’s game was only Evergrande’s third competitive fixture of the year, with the CSL season set to begin this weekend.

A week earlier, Shanghai SIPG appeared a bit rusty – particularly in the first half – as Victory’s intense pressing forced the visitors to resort to long balls at AAMI Park.

3+1 rule limits Asian spending

Unlike in many other competitions around the world, the ACL limits the number of foreigners allowed in each team’s squad to four, including one spot exclusively restricted to players from other Asian Football Confederation members.

This means that for all the money CSL clubs can throw around, they are limited by the standard of their local players, who form the foundation of their squads.

With most CSL coaches spending big on strikers and attacking midfielders, it means A-League clubs can get some joy against Chinese defenders, who aren’t always the most resolute.

Evergrande’s defending for Robert Stambolziev’s opener was a perfect example, with the visitors failing to deal with a period of head tennis as David Carney and Shane Smeltz combined to set up their team-mate.

Guangzhou Evergrande's Yu Hanchao slumps to his knees after a missed chance against Sydney FC.

This is not to say that Chinese players – or those from Japan or South Korea – can’t defend, but the difference between their level and those from the A-League is much less than if Asian clubs could pack their squads full of foreigners.

Hyundai A-League regulations produce tough teams

The A-League’s salary cap generally keeps the standard even in Australia’s top tier, which appears to benefit Australian clubs in the ACL.

A-League players are used to battling every week, as there are very few games where three points are all but inevitable.

Compare that to the CSL where Evergrande won the 2015 title with a goal difference of +43, with Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side losing just one game out of 30.

In the two A-League-CSL clashes in the group stage this year, both Evergrande and SIPG seemed to struggle with Sydney and Victory’s pressing – at least for periods.

Melbourne Victory players celebrate opening the scoring against Gamba Osaka in Japan.

The evenness and lack of funds in the A-League forces coaches to prioritise organisation as well, with Sydney and Victory’s wins based on a fantastic understanding of the game-plan and the fitness to enact it.

Even if the A-League was to remove its salary cap, China’s financial dominance in Asia would almost certainly ensure Australian clubs would be forced to compete with smaller budgets.

There is little Australian football can do about money, so perhaps it’s time to stop focusing on it.

Western Sydney Wanderers have already proven that Australian clubs can be crowned Asian champions.