With wins over Bali United and Kashima Antlers securing an unlikely place in its group stages, the Asian Champions League has already served as a silver lining on an otherwise cloudy 2019/20 A-League season for Victory.
Without a win in the A-League since they defeated Newcastle Jets 4-0 on January 5, Victory’s domestic woes continued last Friday when they were downed 2-1 by cross-town foes Melbourne City in the third and final Melbourne Derby of the season.
Their anguish was compounded the next day when star attacker Robbie Kruse was confirmed for another extended period on the sidelines with a hamstring injury.
But, with a bye week awaiting them in round 20, the four-time A-League champions have a chance to temporarily forget their domestic woes with two Champions League games in the coming weeks, starting with Thai champions Chiangrai United on Tuesday night.
They will then travel to South Korea to take on FC Seoul the week after.
2020 will mark the first time that Chiangrai has progressed through to the group stages of the continental competition, having fallen at the final hurdle in play-off losses to Shanghai SIPG and Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2018 and 2019.
Led by Brazilian attacker Bill, who has had stints with Santos, Corinthians and Al-Ittihad prior to his arrival in Thailand, The Beetles anticipate sending out their strongest team for the showdown at the ‘Melbourne Rectangular Stadium’, despite the first game of their domestic season taking place on Saturday.
“We’re going to play our strongest team for sure,” Chiangrai official Chittawan Chinanuvat said. “It’s match by match, after tomorrow we may rotate for the Thai league.”
Aside from the injured Kruse and Leigh Broxham, who will continue to miss with a calf injury coach Carlos Salvachúa also anticipates fielding his strongest XI for Tuesday night’s fixture, with Marco Rojas coming into contention for selection after replacing Jakob Poulsen in Victory’s ACL squad.
Midfielder Migjen Basha and captain Ola Toivonen are the other foreigners named in Victory’s squad, with oft-injured defender Tim Hoogland saved for A-League duties.
“We have no A-League now for two weeks, so we’re focused on the Champions League” the Victory gaffer said.
“[Chiangrai] did really well last year in Thailand. They won four finals last year, that means that they are a winning team. They are tough to play in big games.
“They want to start with a win in Australia in the first round. But we want to do the same, we want to start winning in front of our fans at AAMI Park. We need to be ready to do everything.”
Toivonen, who is taking part in his second ACL campaign, welcomed the coming games and explained the different aspects of continental compared to league football.
“I think the whole [squad’s attitude] is changing overall,” the Swede said.
“Because if you have six games you play, or in the last play-off games, it’s just one game. You change your mentality and attitude overall.
“If we go back to the Kashima game, I think we very happy to win that game, as a team and as a club.
“I think Australian football overall should also be happy that we qualify for the Champions League, that the three teams are representing Australian football in the ACL.
“Individually, sometimes [you change your approach].
“I remember the Japanese are little more aggressive in the back and the Koreans are sitting down a little bit and the Chinese you never know what’s happening with them. Depending on the nationality you try to change your game a little bit but not massive.
“I think it’s very good for the youth players to see what’s out there in the world and get good opposition in games. It’s been a tough campaign in the A-League and this break is coming really good for us so we can focus on these two ACL games and hopefully get the result and the confidence in the group.”