Asia: Tough challenges ahead for Asian football’s finest
Asian football’s two major continental tournaments have reached the knockout stages following the conclusion of the group stages this week.
The AFC Champions League is usually dominated by South Korean clubs but only two of this year’s four representatives have made it through the group stage. The two successful clubs are Ulsan Hyundai and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, both of whom topped their groups with unbeaten records, whilst the unfortunate clubs to depart the tournament are last season’s losing finalists Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Pohang Steelers. The latter two clubs, who have been crowned Asian champions four times between them, could only finish third in their respective groups and are eliminated.
The most successful countries in this year’s group stages are Japan, Iran and Saudi Arabia who all have three clubs remaining in the last sixteen. Gamba Osaka, the last Japanese team to win the Asian Champions League, was the only J-League club to fail to progress this time with Nagoya Grampus Eight, FC Tokyo and Kashiwa Reysol going on to represent Japan in the latter stages. Al-Ittihad and Sepahan FC, the last Asian champions from the nations of Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, have made it through to the last sixteen with both clubs finishing top of their groups. Al Hilal and Al Ahli also progress as Saudi Arabian representatives while Iran can count on two of Asian football’s biggest names, Esteghlal and Persepolis, to provide tough competition in the latter stages. The United Arab Emirates will feature two clubs in the latter rounds. Al Jazira finished top of Group A with an unbeaten record whilst Baniyas Sports Club finished second in Group B behind Al Ittihad and well above Nasaf Qarshi, the club from Uzbekistan who gained a place in this year’s AFC Champions League having won the secondary AFC Cup in 2011.
Nasaf’s compatriots Bunyodkor are the only club from their nation still involved in the last sixteen with the ambitious Tashkent based side hoping that the major investment pumped into the club over the last five years will soon pay off. Australian side Adelaide United, who finished above Bunyodkor in Group E, are the only side from Down Under to make it through while Central Coast Mariners and two-time defending A-League champions Brisbane Roar, were easily swept aside by stronger opponents. The only country left remaining with one representative in the top competition is China who will rely on Ghangzhou Evergrande to fly the flag. The club has announced today (see previous report) that former FIFA World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi has joined on a two-and-a-half year deal and expectations are high that Ghangzhou could become the first Chinese club to become Asian champions for a quarter of a century.
AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE ROUND OF 16 DRAW
Adelaide United (Australia) v Nagoya Grampus Eight (Japan)
Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia) v Baniyas SC (UAE)
Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia) v Persepolis (Iran)
Al Jazira (UAE) v Al Ahli (Saudi Arabia)
Ghangzhou Evergrande (China) v FC Tokyo (Japan)
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (South Korea) v Bunyodkor FC (Uzbekistan)
Sepahan (Iran) v Esteghlal (Iran)
Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea) v Kashiwa Reysol (Japan)
The AFC Cup, Asian football’s equivalent of the Europa League or Copa Sudamericana, will see three Kuwaiti teams progress to the last sixteen. Two of those three, Al Qadsia and Al Kuwait, will meet each other in the Round of 16 whilst Kazma Sports Club face the only remaining Jordanian side Al Wehdat SC. Another tie which features two teams from the same country is the all-Malaysian affair between Kelantan and Terengganu. Iraq is the final nation to be represented by two clubs in the latter stages, namely Arbil SC and Al Zawra’a SC, while another seven nations will be represented by lone representatives in a competition showing great diversity, as is shown in the draw (below):
AFC CUP ROUND OF 16 DRAW
Al Qadsia (Kuwait) v Al Kuwait (Kuwait)
Al Ettifaq (Saudi Arabia) v Al Suwaiq (Oman)
Al Wehdat (Jordan) v Kazma Sports Club (Kuwait)
Al Shorta (Syria) v Home United (Singapore)
Arbil SC (Iraq) v Neftchi Farg’ona (Uzbekistan)
Chonburi (Thailand) v Al Zawra’a (Iraq)
Kitchee SC (Hong Kong) v Arema FC (Indonesia)
Kelantan (Malaysia) v Terengganu (Malaysia)