The AFC Champions League returned after its summer break with a bang. This years quarter-finals pitted 8 teams from 7 countries against each other, creating the sublime, the frustrating but overly some finally poised ties that offer plenty as we slowly move to the culmination of the tournament. Tom Danicek, Martin Lowe and James Eugene look back on a week of first legs which set up the return ties in three weeks time perfectly.
Kashiwa Reysol – Guangzhou Evergrande 1:3
- An impressive return to the ACL see’s Scolari’s Guangzhou move one step closer to the Semi-Finals
Guangzhou Evergrande are bullies. They clearly landed in Japan with a predominantly defensive mindset, after all it’s Scolari’s team we’re talking about, so a great deal of pragmatism was to be expected, but their plan worked to perfection (and an emphatic away win) nonetheless.
While all three of their goals stemmed from set pieces, and while the intensively hyped Ricardo Goulart failed to really show anything special, Guangzhou kept frustrating Kashiwa Reysol with their passive-aggressive defending for the whole game and got caught off guard only in the dying minutes.
The Japanese are no strangers to suffering a debacle on home soil by the hands of Guangzhou Evergrande. Two years ago, Lippi’s team arrived to the Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium with its eyes set on a dominant win and a dominant win they earned – 1:4, the semi-finals were decided on the spot.
But this previous encounter was instantly so different.
Firstly, it wasn’t subject to any sort of dominance – “defensive dominance” in this particular case. On Tuesday, Kashiwa seemingly enjoyed all the ball on offer, but they couldn’t capitalize on it; not even remotely, in fact.
Guangzhou’s shape was tremendous; fluid and rigid enough at the same time. All the players worked hard and were keen on outnumbering opponents. As a result of that, Kosuke Taketomi – with all his great awareness usually shown in attack – was suffocating on the very day. The Chinese had Tuesday’s match under their total and utter control.
That wasn’t the case two years back, though, as Kashiwa came extemely close to a 2:0 lead and managed to create some fine chances in the latter stages, too.
Moreover, in 2013, it was Kashiwa who scored after a set piece; whereas Guangzhou beat them by channeling the ruthlessness of Brazilian striker Muriqui and the sheer brilliance in Darío Conca. In 2015? Well, it was an ultimate team effort above all, wasn’t it? It’s hard to single out one player for his individual performance.
On the other hand, to point out one fantastic individual moment could hardly get any easier…
Al-Hilal – Lekhwiya 4:1
- An impressive performance from the wide players give the home side a big advantage
Before the game, not many people doubted that the home side would march off the field victorious. But to march off of the field with a three goal cushion is an impressive feat to say the least. The game contained everything: disallowed goals, incredible misses, a cheeky finish and a goalkeeping howler. Let’s start off with the last point.
Lekhwiya started the game off positively and aimed to keep possession at all costs. It could’ve worked in their favour but their goalkeeper Amine Lecomte dwindled on the ball longer than necessary and ended up watching the ball loop over him after his attempt at clearing the ball hit Al-HIlal striker Ailton.
The visitors seemed unfazed by the goal and continued their impressive two-touch passing and pressing the Al-Hilal back line. The tactic paid dividends as Youssef Mskani managed to break through on goal and dink a cheeky chip over the goalkeeper.
They say that a team would almost always be punished for missing a simple chance (at least that’s what my 5-a-side coach used to tell me). Lekhwiya continued their impressive attacking performance by carving open the Al-Hilal defence like a Sunday roast, but Luiz Martin failed to tuck the ball into the net despite being one-on-one with the goalkeeper. No more than thirty seconds later, Khalid Kaabi rounded the goalkeeper on the other side of the pitch after an quick counter-attack and put the home side 2-1 up.
Carlos Eduardo bagged the remaining goals: the first goal in the 36th minute after tapping-in a Yasir Al Shahrani cross; and the second goal was headed in after Faisel Darwish sent a tasty ball into the box. The key thing to consider is that these goals came from the same flank. In fact, a shell-shocked Lekhwiya were unable to deal with Al-Hilal’s wide men all match, inevitably culminating in their downfall.
The match didn’t end without brewing up any controversies however. Not only did Al-Hilal have a penalty should turned down when Dame Traore threw his arm between the goal and a headed attempt, but Digao had a legitimate goal ruled offside by the linesman.
So what do Lekhwiya have to do to close this deficit? One suggestion is to continue their passing and possession play, but ensure that they actually bury their chances away. Al-Hilal will play probably play on the counter when these two sides meet in Qatar on Wednesday, so keeping the the fullbacks quiet will be a tough yet necessary job for Lekhwiya’s wide men. Their coach Djamel Belmadi quoted after the match is unsurprisingly hoping for a “better performance in the second leg in order to remain in the competition”.
Jeonbuk Motors – Gamba Osaka 0:0
- Late Brazilian pressure offers more food for thought after a meager opening gambit
On paper this promised to be a true delight of East Asian football, champions from both sides of the bitter rivalry between South Korea and Japan with more than a few domestic gems to inspire. Well the first encounter in the main disappointed, if not for its tactical battle but for its lack of real menace from either side.
The first half was pretty much a right off. Both sides looked nervous in possession and promptly dropped deeper and deeper to spare their blushes.
The second half was much more of a spectacle and offered a glimmer of hope of what we could expect in next month’s return leg. Both sides showed their capabilities in patches but ultimately the home fans of Jeonbuk will feel the most disappointed to not be taking a lead to Japan.
The talk of the tie before the match highlighted by Tom earlier in the week pitted the two young aces of their respective nations; Lee Jae-Sung and Takashi Usami. Their interplay remained essential to each of their side’s progression up the field but they were on the whole usurped by an influential Brazilian attacking focal point.
Gamba’s lumbering target man Patric who often divides opinion is hitting some top form of late, a fact Jeonbuk addressed from the off, tightly shackling the Brazlian throughout the opening sparring. While it left Motors exposed out wide through attacks from Abe and full back Fujiharu, Patric continued to look Gamba’s best hope at breaking the deadlock sending Kwon Soon-Tae scrambling on a number of occasions.
Jeonbuk on the other hand started to dominate only once they introduced their returning Brazilian import Luiz Henrique after the break. His dynamism to consistently look forward created some of the brightest openings as Motors pressed for a winner in the closing stages. His invention lead to the best opportunity of the match, if only his guile was duly rewarded by either Park Won Jae or Lee Dong-Gook we could’ve been in a different situation.
We are finely poised going into the return leg, but the late rallying from both sides’ Brazilian talisman in particular has offered a glimpse into the kind of quality we can wholeheartedly expect back in Osaka.
Naft Tehran – Al Ahli Dubai 0:1
- A debut Lima goal edges a match that won’t live too long in the memory
Well, that was exhaustive – sadly in the worst sense of the word. Save the best for last, eh?
An incredibly scrappy game offered next to no chances and was decided by a piece of terrible play by the Iranian side. Surely, to leave Rodrigo Lima – twice in a row the best Benfica league goalscorer – completely unmarked when defending a corner kick was always going to be a bad idea, right?
To be fair, all sorts of shortcomings were to be seen at both ends of the pitch. Al Ahli, for example, utterly failed in their quest to exploit the weakest spot in Naft line-up; their left-hand side.
The celebrated right winger Ismail Al Hammadi spent most of the game receiving balls somewhere around the half-way line, where he was of no use whatsoever, whereas the most popular way in order to target Hamdinejad was to hoof the ball long hoping Khalil will win an air battle.
Once more: with Everton Ribeiro’s creative mind in place (and too often ignored yet again), that was always going to be a bad idea, right?
As a result of that – and Naft’s continuous trouble to create any chances from open play without the essential contribution of the injured playmaker Mobali – the lack of shooting opportunities would put even a new born child to deep sleep.
One fine source of entertainment probably could be set pieces – Payman Sadeghian has won loads of them for Naft and the captain Ezati even twice had a good looking chance to score – but that simply wasn’t enough.
Especially as the high number of fouls committed was quite naturally the main reason behind all the scrappiness; with this sequence making for a notorious highlight of the night (occurring right before Lima’s winning strike)…
In the end, Naft Tehran finished on a high note, with their best spell of the game and finally some hints of constant pressure, but they still ended up being shut out for the first time at Azadi Stadium in this year’s competition.