Japanese and Saudi sides march on in the Asian Champions League.
By Michael Church
Club sides from Japan and Saudi Arabia underlined the strength of their respective leagues when all four representatives from each nation progressed to the knockout stage of the competition.
The new format has seen an additional knockout round – which will be played as a one-off match – added to the schedule as two teams, rather than the previous one, emerged from the group stage.
Following on from their impressive showing in last year’s competition, defending champions Gamba Osaka from Japan were the first team to qualify, winning all of their first five matches in Group F before succumbing to Seoul in their final group game.
That win for the South Koreans, coupled with a shock 4-2 loss for Chinese champions Shandong Luneng at the hands of Sriwijaya of Indonesia, meant Senol Gunes’ team also booked their place in the knockout phase, where they will face Japan’s Kashima Antlers.
Australia’s Newcastle Jets scraped through to the last 16 with a final-day win over Ulsan Hyundai to set up a meeting with twice Asian champions Pohang Steelers, while Suwon Bluewings will travel to Japan to take on Nagoya Grampus after putting their disappointing domestic form behind them to progress.
“There was nothing more that I could have asked from my team,” said Newcastle coach Gary Van Egmond. “They fought with everything they had and were able to stop numerous amounts of attacks from a strong Korean side.
“We knew it was going to be difficult but we came and achieved our goal. I am very proud of our players.”
As the Japanese have dominated in the east, so the Saudis have been impressive in the west of the continent as three of their four clubs topped their respective groups.
Al Hilal, twice winners of the defunct Asian Club Championship, defeated Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor 2-0 to win Group A and set up a meeting with Umm Salal of Qatar.
“We went into the game with only one target, which was to win the group, and we eventually achieved that with a good win,” said Al Hilal coach Abdullatif Al Hussaini.
“The result doesn’t mean that Pakhtakor are a weak team because they gave a battling performance.”
Pakhtakor still did enough to progress from the group and they take on another Saudi side when they face Al Ettifaq, while former champions Al Ittihad won Group C to set up an all-Saudi clash with Al Shabab.
Iranian side Persepolis won Group B after beating Al Shabab and now face a mouth-watering encounter with Bunyodkor, who booked their place in the last 16 thanks to a 0-0 draw with Al Shabab of the United Arab Emirates in the last round of matches.