Maclaren: It’s sink or swim

As Melbourne City FC prepares to feature in its inaugural AFC Champions League campaign, the playing group is undoubtedly experiencing equal amounts of pride and pressure.

Pride, current Golden Boot leader Jamie Maclaren said, because the unprecedented Club achievement of group stage qualification has been a deserved reward for the team’s performances in recent times.

“It’s a proud moment for our football club to be a part of the best clubs in Asia for this year,” Maclaren said.

“We’ve had a very successful last two seasons where we’ve finished in the top two and earned our stripes for qualification in the ACL.”

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However, there will also be pressure to perform, the striker warned, as Australia’s reputation within Asia balances precariously on its 2022 representatives’ upcoming campaigns.

“A lot of people have lost a bit of respect for Australian teams because they haven’t gotten out of the group in a couple of years,” Maclaren said.

Though he was confident of an impending buck to that trend.

“I believe that we have the squad to do so, so now it’s down to us.”

So, what is it about the City squad that its star striker is so confident will serve it well in Thailand? How will it succeed amidst the pressure of a condensed group stage campaign?

The first necessity of any knockout-stage aspirant, the first box that City ticks, is continental experience.

“There’s a few boys in this squad who have had Asian Champions League experience which is also important,” Maclaren said, referencing himself and teammates Scott Galloway, Scott Jamieson, Mathew Leckie and Andrew Nabbout.

The team can also rely on the UEFA Champions League and CONCACAF Champions League experience of Carl Jenkinson and Tsubasa Endoh respectively.

Familiarity with opposition, playing in a foreign environment and combating a congested fixture are all factors that a player with continental experience can rely on to acclimatise faster and ensure consistency in their performances.

“I know what to expect, but there’s a lot of boys in this squad who don’t know what to expect,” Maclaren summarised.

The next box to check off is the ability to win ugly, especially in uncomfortable environments.

Reflecting on his 2017 Champions League campaign with Brisbane Roar, the 28-year-old noted, “I found that when you played them away in their backyard, it was really difficult.”

With the entirety of City’s Group Stage campaign to be played in Bangkok at the home stadium of fellow Group G side BG Pathum United FC, the adversity faced playing on foreign soil will likely be a mainstay throughout April.

In light of that, Maclaren admits that in such circumstances, a team needs to have the dogged determination to scrape wins against all odds.

“Sometimes the points are more important than the performance,” he said, “When you’re away from home and your back’s against the wall it’s always important to get the points on the board, because the group stage is all about finishing on top.”

Finally, the condensed nature of the 2022 group stage means that Maclaren and his City teammates will have to play six games in the space of 17 days.

With that type of schedule totally unsustainable for players to start every game in, a trait required especially for this unique iteration of the Group stage will be squad depth, something that City has been praised for this season.

With a squad boasting several emerging youngsters and quality foreigners throughout, fans have witnessed incredible competition for starting places this season, a previously weekly headache which will now become a blessing for Patrick Kisnorbo, as he will be able to name competitive but rotated lineups throughout the 17-day period.

The real issue, Maclaren said, is how well many of City’s squad players are able to translate their domestic form into comparable displays in Asia.

“There will be a lot of players that will get a lot of opportunities and it’s about them swimming rather than sinking.”

With, in Maclaren’s eyes, all three boxes checked, the City squad arre now well and truly into their preparations to kick their campaign off against BG Pathum on Friday night.

For now, the team has left its domestic campaign totally behind, with a new goal of becoming just the second Australian team in the past six years to successfully navigate the Group Stage set squarely in its sights.

“Our full focus is to get out of the group, qualify for the next stage and really put in some good performances,” Maclaren said.