Sydney FC ready for Champions League assault, Victory less so
Both are reigning A-League grand finalists and long-time powerhouses, yet the AFC Champions League couldn't present more conflicting plots for Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory.
As defending domestic champions, Sydney are aiming high to break their own records and add Asia's flagship tournament to their growing trophy collection. Meanwhile, the inconsistent Victory are teetering delicately on the edge of A-League finals contention.
Kevin Muscat was still wondering where it all went wrong in Friday's 2-1 home loss to Brisbane Roar when, one night later, the table-topping Sky Blues underlined their utter dominance with a 4-0 drubbing of Melbourne City.
Sydney kick off their ACL campaign against Suwon Bluewings on Wednesday night, high on the confidence that comes with a 12-point league lead and a stacked, injury-free squad that has netted 50 goals from 20 outings.
So successful has the team been that head coach Graham Arnold is deep in negotiations to become the post-World Cup Socceroos boss.
That could mean he departs the club before any potential ACL triumph to replicate Western Sydney's historic 2014 feat.
But for now, at least, Arnold remained focused on topping a group also featuring Chinese heavyweights Shanghai Shenhua and Japanese side Kashima Antlers.
"It's early days," he said.
"We have to do the first step first -- the first six games -- but I really do believe we've got the team and the players to go a long way.
"The first thing is to get to the last 16, to top our group, and we go from there."
Muscat, meanwhile, is navigating a starkly different set of circumstances.
Victory sit fifth, 11 points behind the second-placed Jets and four ahead of the seventh-placed Roar with seven rounds to play.
Having been booed by frustrated fans during Friday's third consecutive defeat, the former Socceroos defender finds himself under a huge amount of pressure in the twilight of his contract, with no news from the board of an extension.
Keeping his head above water both in Asia and the A-League will be onerous in a hectic schedule starting with Korean outfit Ulsan Hyundai on Tuesday, while other group opponents Shanghai SIPG and Kawasaki Frontale also lie in wait.
Muscat has been criticised for predictable tactics with an acknowledgement he is fielding some underperforming players.
"You've got to adapt in the Champions League anyway and that's what's exciting about it, it tests the staff,'" Muscat said.
"We'll have to be flexible with the way we go about it. Tactically we've got to be respectful and responsive."
Despite Brisbane's upset, John Aloisi's equally embattled side slipped to seventh following Western Sydney's 4-0 job on last-placed Wellington.
The catch-up fixture killed off any shot the sorry Phoenix had of an unlikely finals run.
The somewhat revived Wanderers will back up to host Newcastle at Spotless Stadium on Friday night.
On Saturday the Phoenix will welcome Perth before Adelaide host Central Coast to conclude the second half of the split round.