AFC Champions League a test of Melbourne City, A-League credentials

It's one of the longer-standing shortcomings of a league with no shortage of areas in need of improvement: The performance of A-League Men (ALM) sides in the AFC Champions League (ACL).

Western Sydney Wanderers stunned Asia by lifting the trophy in 2014, but the performance of Australian clubs on the continent's biggest club football stage has since been, to put it generously, poor. Including this and preceding years' qualifiers, Australian clubs have played 100 ACL games since Wanderers' crown, losing 49% of their games, compared with a 25% winning rate, and accumulating a goal difference of -54.

This mediocrity has led to a fall in Australia's Asian Football Confederation (AFC) coefficient ranking that will soon see two-thirds of its continental representation relegated from the ACL to the AFC Cup.

Predictably, this has been met with significant disappointment in Australia -- ALM clubs don't often have to worry about relegation for poor performance, after all -- and rightly bemoaned as a missed opportunity from footballing, cultural, and commercial perspectives. Australian Professional Leagues managing director Danny Townsend has flagged the ACL as a priority area for the league to improve.

A variety of explanations have been put forward to justify the decline. Some of these are logistical, some financial, some surrounding fixturing and prioritization, and some play into the ongoing debate surrounding a lack of respect or desire of Australian football to properly engage with Asian football.

But while all of these factors undoubtedly contribute, perhaps a major driver behind the trend of Australian sides' continued inability to fire in Asia is their lack of capability, on a tactical or technical level, to do so.

But this, ostensibly, is where reigning ALM premiers and champions Melbourne City come in.

This year marks City's first foray into the ACL after Australian clubs withdrew from the 2021 iteration and, on a surface level, they appear well equipped to exceed the low bar that will greet them.

Though disclaimers need to be made surrounding their rivals possessing games in hand, they departed for the ACL eight points clear of second-placed Western United in the ALM, having scored 16 more goals than any other team and recently recording an 11-game unbeaten run.

City press high and hard -- winning the ball in the final third 27 more times than any other ALM side this campaign -- and thanks to two merciless preseasons under coach Patrick Kisnorbo they are one of the fittest ALM sides in history. Frequently across the past two seasons, their ability to find another gear in the second half of games has seen them blow oppositions out of the water with their pace and power: Scoring in bunches to kill games off in the space of minutes.

Led by Socceroos attacker Jamie Maclaren, who appears odds-on to record his third straight Golden Boot in a City shirt, they field a star-studded and deep lineup featuring a bevy of Australian internationals and overseas talents such as Florin Berenguer.

Combine this with the financial might of the City Football Group behind them, and said group's long-standing ambition to make a mark on the continental stage, and it's easy to see why the ALM's leaders are positioned as Australia's great hope of a return to continental form.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that City are not alone and Sydney FC will be marking their seventh appearance on the continental stage in the weeks ahead.

But expectations are decidedly lower for the Sky Blues given they marked their departure for a Vietnamese hub by collapsing to a late defeat against Adelaide United that potentially dealt a mortal blow to their ALM finals hopes. And that's before considering they share a group with Korean powers Jeonbuk Motors and Japanese heavyweights Yokohama F. Marinos.

City, by contrast, have been drawn in a group featuring second-tier Korean side Jeonnam Dragons, who qualified by virtue of their 2021 Korean FA Cup triumph; Thai side BG Pathum United; and Philippine club United City. All games taking place in a Thai hub, travel will also be removed as a factor.

It's a group from which Kisnorbo's side will be expected to progress.

Kisnorbo is seen as a rising star in Australian coaching, due to the rapid success he has experienced at City since taking over from mentor Erick Mombaerts ahead of the 2020-21 season, and the ACL represents an important test of his credentials.

Having been fastidiously developed within City's internal structure -- first serving as a youth coach, then a women's coach, then a men's assistant, and finally as the senior men's coach -- the ACL arguably represents the 41-year-old's first major foray into the "unknown".

Since taking over a side coming off the back of an ALM grand final loss -- and one with the financial muscle to maintain its squad and even add players in the face of COVID headwinds -- Kisnorbo has coached against non-ALM opposition in competitive fixtures only twice: Semi-professional South Melbourne and Hume City in the 2021 FFA Cup.

The coming ACL group stage and, City hope, knockout stages, therefore represent the first time that Kisnorbo and his side will face the unknown. It will be a test of his and his side's adaptability against unfamiliar opposition and styles, both between fixtures and in-game. They will be forced to react to sides that aren't defined by ALM's patterns and habits of play, and whose approach has been shaped by a decidedly different environment than Australia's.

And certainly, there are gaps in City's armour that can be exploited.

On Saturday, City were outplayed and outfoxed by Melbourne Victory and their coach Tony Popovic -- the man who guided Western Sydney to the 2014 ACL crown -- on the way to a 3-0 Melbourne Derby defeat.

Kisnorbo has frequently dismissed goals his side conceded as "lapses" in concentration, but City have been vulnerable at times this season against teams sitting back, giving them the ball and striking in transition. Kisnorbo has also proven reticent to turn to his bench, adjust his formation, or rotate his squad.

Then there is the weight of internal and external expectations. Kisnorbo is notorious for declaring he pays little heed to anything other than the next game, but his squad is only human.

Having been so dominant across the past one-and-a-half seasons -- shedding their label as choke artists -- City's performance in this year's ACL shapes as being indicative not just of their own quality but also the league's.

Conversations surrounding the standing of the ALM often bypass its Asian counterparts for European points of comparison -- frequently zeroing in on where a side would fit in the English pyramid. This is despite there being a ready-made reality check in the form of the league's most successful side, Sydney FC's dynasty of the late 2010s, progressing beyond the ACL group stage only once in four attempts and winning just two games in their past three outings.

Now, as ALM's new dynasty-elect, the onus is on City to pick up the mantle.

Are they a good side? One that can stand among Asia's best? Or just a good A-Leagues side?

If they can't put in a good showing in Asia, what does that say of the quality of the league they have run roughshod over for the past year-and-a-half?