Over the weekend the Asian football fraternity was rocked by the news that Australian clubs Sydney FC, Melbourne City, and Brisbane Roar have withdrawn from the 2021 AFC Champions League.
A fresh outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the state of Victoria forces the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) to reschedule the post-season play-offs for the A-League title – the Finals series. The rescheduling of the Finals inevitably creates a fixture clash with the ACL and with the ACL representative trio also participating in the Finals, the difficult decision was made to withdraw them from the ACL.
Australia’s tough quarantine measures also ensure that Sydney, Melbourne, and Roar will be unable to travel to their respective centralized venues for their ACL matches and back to Australia for their Finals matches on time.
Reigning Australian champions Sydney were drawn to Group H, where the Sky Blues were set to face Japan’s Gamba Osaka, South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, and Singapore’s Tampines Rovers.
Melbourne and Roar, on the other hand, had to go through the qualifying play-offs first.
Backed by the City Football Group, Melbourne were scheduled to make their continental debut by taking on Shan United of Myanmar in the first round of the qualifiers, only to receive a bye to the next round after the Myanmar coup forces Shan United to withdraw from the ACL. Prior to their withdrawal, the City were set to take on Japan’s Cerezo Osaka in the final round of the play-offs.
Similarly, Roar were set to take on Kaya FC-Iloilo of the Philippines in the first round of the qualifying play-offs and they were drawn to take on China’s Shanghai Port should they overcome Kaya. However with Roar stepping out of the competition, Kaya will instead face-off against Shanghai Port for the final spot in the ACL group stages.
Australia’s loss became Thailand’s gain as the kingdom will be represented by four teams in the ACL for the first time in history. BG Pathum United and Port FC, first and second placers of the first half of the 2020-21 Thai League 1 season respectively, qualify automatically to the group stages by virtue of league performance.
Both Singha Chiangrai United and Ratchaburi Mitr Phol were set to start their ACL journey from the qualifying play-offs, however the withdrawal and subsequent disbandment of Chinese champions Jiangsu FC meant that Ratchaburi and play-off opponents Pohang Steelers go straight to the group stages, before the withdrawal of Australian teams meant that both Chiangrai and their play-off opponents Daegu FC were also given free passes to the group stage, along with Cerezo.
The Beetles of Chiangrai replace Sydney in Group H, which will be played in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Daegu, on the other hand, will face-off against Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale, China’s Beijing Guoan, and United City of the Philippines in Group I, while Cerezo will join Port, China’s Guangzhou FC, and Kitchee SC of Hong Kong in Group J.
The East Zone of this year’s ACL will be played in both Thailand and Uzbekistan. BGPU will use their Leo Stadium to host Group F, while Ratchaburi will use the Rajamangala National Stadium to host Group G. Tashkent will play host to Groups I and H at the Bunyodkor Stadium and Lokomotiv Stadium, while Port will host Group J at the backyard of league rivals Buriram United, the Chang Arena.