Adelaide United set for AFC Champions League return

After a four-year absence Adelaide United will be back in the AFC Champions League group stages next season.

A 3-1 victory over the Western Sydney Warriors in Sunday’s A-League grand final means that Adelaide United rounded off a near-perfect season in which Guillermo Amor’s side finished the top of the table after the conclusion of the regular season.

Adelaide missed out on a place in the 2016 edition of the AFC Champions League after losing to Shandong Luneng in a one-match play-off, but United will now be back in Asia’s premier continental competition next season.

While many Australian teams have failed to replicate domestic success in the AFC Champions League – the Western Sydney Wanderers class of 2014 aside of course – Adelaide have led the way in this respect.

On their tournament debut in 2007, the men from South Australia finished third in their group in what was a brief foray into the competition. However, in 2008 Adelaide would show that they were more than capable of mixing it up with Asia’s best.

After seeing off the likes of then two-time winners Pohang Steelers to top Group E, a quarter-final victory over Kashima Antlers was followed by a 3-1 aggregate win over FC Bunyodkor in the semi-finals. Only Gamba Osaka stood between Adelaide and the silverware, but they were outplayed in each of the final’s two legs, with the J-League outfit emerging as champions.

That disappointment would be followed from a brief hiatus from the tournament the following year, but places in the round of 16 in 2010 and the quarter-finals in 2012 have underlined United’s abilities in continental competition.

It was Adelaide’s rock-solid defence that was the foundation of their A-League triumph, and such a model will prove crucial in their bid for success in the 2017 AFC Champions League. After conceding 17 goals in their first eight matches, they would go on to leak just 11 in their final 19, keeping 11 clean sheets in the season. Such frugality is key when playing in Asia.

Amor has worked wonders this season, forging an identity for the club based around a team of hard-working players, many of whom arrived at the Coopers Stadium unwanted by other A-League sides. Bruce Djite was Adelaide’s top scorer, netting 11 goals in the league, the same number he had achieved in the previous two campaigns combined; Amor has got the best out of his players, and they have responded to him by giving him their best.

The step up to the AFC Champions League is a big one, but Amor has shown tactical shrewdness and managerial smarts that suggest that if Adelaide can bring in some reinforcements ahead of a testing campaign, Adelaide may once again show that they can be competitive in Asia.