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They didn’t want to go to Qatar, but the stars could finally be aligning in Asia for Sydney FC

Hence, the reservations expressed by players, coaches and staff of all three Australian teams about flying to Doha and the extreme caution taken by the teams who have arrived in recent days. Mooy’s new team has set the standard on that front, with the 30-year-old midfielder and his Shanghai teammates, including former Chelsea star Oscar, donning personal protective equipment suits as they presented for testing at the airport.

Shanghai SIPG star Oscar was taking all precautions in Qatar.

Shanghai SIPG star Oscar was taking all precautions in Qatar.Credit:The AFC

The A-League sides were effectively strong-armed into going by the AFC, who are determined to finish the tournament in spite of all the obstacles to avoid any financial or legal conflict with broadcasters Lagardere Sports.

Success in Qatar is a double-edged sword for the Australian teams: any side that progress beyond the round of 16 will be in hotel quarantine over Christmas, which could impact preparations and planning for the start of the new A-League season on December 27.

The Sky Blues have never gone that far, and it bugs them. In five previous attempts they’ve only moved past the group stage once, in 2016.

Having well and truly conquered the domestic scene in recent years, the ACL trophy is the only piece of silverware missing from their collection – as Western Sydney Wanderers fans regularly remind them.

Sydney FC have dominated football in Australia in recent seasons.

Sydney FC have dominated football in Australia in recent seasons.Credit:Getty

After failing to win either of their two Group H matches pre-pandemic, Sydney will resume with a fair handicap, and will also be missing several key players: goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne and defender Ryan McGowan. But the current state of their opponents suggests they are still in with a red-hot chance.

They need to start with a win against a shaky Shanghai, who won just one of their last seven matches in the recently concluded Chinese Super League season – during which their squad was confined to a hotel for four long months. SIPG are also without ex-West Ham striker Marko Arnautovic, Oscar is said to be injured and rumours of internal unrest and division are rife.

But Sydney FC coach Steve Corica remains wary, particularly with one of his midfielders in doubt and the other ruled out: Luke Brattan is nursing a hamstring strain, while Anthony Caceres won’t leave Sydney until Wednesday night after the club gave him permission to delay his departure for family reasons.

“We matched up well against them last year … but they’re just coming off their season, so they’re super fit. We’re just starting our season,” Corica said. “We’re slowly getting there, building into the tournament, but we need to start with a good performance.”

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Ange Postecoglou’s Yokohama F. Marinos, meanwhile, have slumped to seventh in the J.League, which is still going despite the start of the ACL, forcing the former Socceroos coach to split his squad in two. His strongest players are with him in Doha, but they are not playing anything like the team that won the title last year.

The biggest danger is Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who have just claimed the K League championship for the fourth year in a row and are determined to send off departing coach Jose Morais with a treble.

But in a centralised hub, with no home grounds and under a rapidly condensed schedule, the playing field has been dramatically levelled. The circumstances aren’t ideal, but if Sydney FC are good enough to take advantage of them, this could be the year they finally slay their ACL demons.

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