BRITISH coach Jason Withe is tempering his expectations, as United City FC makes its second straight trip to the group stage of the prestigious Asian Football Confederation Champions League kicking off Friday in multiple locations throughout the continent.
Similar to its fate in 2021, UCFC was drawn in tough Group G with BG Pathum United, the reigning Thai League 1 champion; A-League titleholder Melbourne City; and top South Korean Division 2 club Jeonnam Dragons, four-time FA Cup champions.
BG Pathum will enjoy an immense home field advantage since the double-round competition is at the 10,000-capacity BG Stadium in the city of Pathum Thani, 40 kilometers north of the Thai capital of Bangkok.
The top squad after the series earns an outright slot into the knockout round-of-16 along with the best second-placers overall among the groups.
The hosts start their campaign against the Aussies while the Golden Boys, UCFC’s moniker, play the Dragons in the other match of the opening-day double header.
“We’re not setting our expectations too high because we are practically facing the same conditions we had in 2021 again. Around 50 to 40 percent of our core players are also gone,” rued Withe, the son of celebrated Aston Villa striker Peter Withe, of his club’s predicament.
Among those missing from last year’s roster are Azkals skipper and midfield maestro Stephan Shrock and prolific forward Bienvenido Maranon, who now plays for Malaysian club Johor Darul Ta’zim.
The coach said that Schrock, however, has kept in touch with the British tactician on a regular basis to be updated on the developments of the multi-titled club.
“We talk to Stephan every three to four days to ask something about the club and its players. In fact, I expect him to visit the team in Thailand because he and his family are holidaying there when we arrive,” said Withe, who left with the team for the Thai capital last Monday.
He noted that in 2021, “we only had 10 days training in Dubai before heading to Uzbekistan to play in the group stage. And we had a much stronger team then than now.”
Playing in Group I with J-League champion Kawasaski Frontale, South Korean club Daegu FC, and Beijing Guoan of China, UCFC finished the series third overall with four points, highlighted by a 3-2 decision over the Chinese, who fielded a junior team, Withe recalled.
Approximating the performance of last year, he added, was a tall order considering the cramming UCFC has to do again in preparing a younger, virtually new and less-experienced squad, compared to last year’s seasoned club.
“How long have our opponents been training? BG Pathum United and Melbourne City are in mid-season while Jeonnam also has more matches than UCFC. All are strong teams. How many matches have we had in the Copa Paulino Alcantara? Four,” he pointed out.
Since last year’s Champions League ended in July, he said, most of his present players were out of action for nine months, an eternity in football terms.
To make up for lost time, White disclosed the UCFC players have been training nonstop practically daily since he arrived in Manila in early March either at the Emperador pitch inside McKinley Hill in Taguig city or at PFF national training center in Carmona town, Cavite.
He was slightly upset that the training at the Emperador Stadium, which lies directly in the flight path of most aircraft arriving in Manila, was constantly being interrupted by buzzing planes overhead “which makes it difficult when you’re coaching since you have to wait before you can give instructions.”
Because of his attention on his charges in the buildup to the Champions League, the coach said he has had little time to chat with compatriots Scott Cooper and Stewart Hall, who handle the Azkals and the PFF developmental program, respectively, although he knows them quite well.
“Although I told Stewart I would meet up with him, I’ve just been too busy (with my team) while Scott is of course focused on his own preparations with the national team for the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in June,” Withe said.
“We’re still in the learning stages. We’ve got a lot of new players so we have integrated them into our system and introduce them to our tactics, although they have responded quite well under the circumstances,” he added.
Given these conditions entering the Champions League, the Liverpool-born English mentor was realistic about his team’s prospects amid the high expectations of Filipino football fans, considering the winning tradition the club inherited when it still played under banner of Ceres-Negros FC.
“Everybody wants to have this quick-fix – you get a result, get a result, get a result. But building a winning team takes time and can’t be done overnight. UCFC is a totally different team from what we had last year,” he explained.
Match-fitness was also one of the coach’s concerns since the Golden Boys will be playing four games compressed into two weeks, with injuries bound to occur.
“If you’re playing back-to-back games every three to four days, you are going to get injuries. There is nothing you can do to prevent that. I have 24 players but our rotation is not yet built for these kind of short recoveries between games,” he stressed.
Faced with these challenges, the British mentor was not about to sell his team short against its rivals.
“We’ve done our homework. We will be tactically organized but that depends on the other teams. While I look at this (Champions League) outing more as a learning experience for our players, who know what will happen?” Withe said.
“Personally, I’d be happy if we finish third again.”