With international week becoming a distant memory, we now return to domestic action, as we gear up to find out which four Asian clubs sides will make it through to the AFC Champions League semi-finals. After a few thoroughly enjoyable first legs a couple of weeks ago, we’re still looking at at least two closely run second legs in the coming days. Martin Lowe runs the rule over the main talking points going into Asia’s midweek action.
Guangzhou Evergrande v Kashiwa Reysol (3-1 after the first leg)
It may have been a toss-up for who performed the most comprehensively two weeks ago in the ACL, but Guangzhou’s sheer devastating performance away from home to kick off the match day narrowly took it. From the very start, Felipe Luiz Scolari’s side (his first match back in the ACL) controlled the tempo, the possession and ultimately the result of the match. But for a late Kashiwa goal and you’d assume this match would’ve be an unquestionable victory for the Chinese, even though some already consider it as such, branding Reysol’s late effort a mere consolation.
This is the time of the season where Guangzhou start to excel, as they knuckle down to the business end of the year in winning trophies. They’ve been experiencing a couple of weeks off since their devastating first leg win, and returned in similarly impressive fashion beating title challengers SIPG 3-0 in Shanghai over the weekend. The win sees them leapfrog their rivals into a two-point lead at the top of the Chinese Super League as we pass into the final five matches of the season. A devastating blow for their competitors who were aiming to become the first side to topple Guangzhou off top spot for the 4 years.
Reysol on the other hand have been quite busy since their mauling at home to Evergrande, playing 4 times in that period but only registering one win. That win in the Nabisco Cup even proved futile, as they didn’t sufficiently recover from a first leg deficit against Vissel Kobe. Either side of their Cup exit they picked up 1 point from two matches in the league as their J-League playoff push has seemed to wane in the final stages of the season.
Kashiwa have struggled to compete on multiple fronts all through the season, struggling domestically early on while progressing in the ACL, before only translating such form back in Japan over the summer ACL break. Consistency has been hard to come by, something at least that maybe easier to regulate if they do exit to Guangzhou this week.
The main team news going into Tuesday’s clash is that Brazilian striker Elkeson will return to ACL action after scoring on his domestic return from injury in Guangzhou’s win over SIPG. While his Brazilian counterpart who opened the scoring, Robinho, remains ineligible due to the peculiar decision not to select him in their ACL squad. For Kashiwa, club captain Hidekazu Otani is expected to return, while Naoki Wako may drop out as a medical precaution.
Lekhwiya v Al-Hilal (1-4 after the first leg)
Maybe the most one sided encounter of the initial quarter-final ties, Al-Hilal’s massacre of Lekhwiya was a true delight for the home side that have started the new SPL season in ominous form, while their Qatari guests seemed to dwell further into their personnel woes. The fact the Saudi’s were 3-1 up before the break, a 4-1 beating may have felt as a satisfactory result, but the initial burst of form of Brazilian Carlos Eduardo who’s score 4 goals in as many games since his move from Porto has led many to predict a cake walk for the Riyadh based club into the semis.
It’s very hard to put a finger on a side in better form in the whole of Asia, at least in the West than Al-Hilal. Flying straight out of the gate, in the last month they’ve already captured the Saudi Super Cup, recorded two wins from two domestically and effectively stepped one foot into the ACL semi-finals.
The key to their success has come through two folds, through building on their solid foundations (Kwak Tae-Hwi as part of a back three has again been composed and rigid) to bedding in their new recruits effortlessly (alongside Carlos Eduardo, Ailton Almeida has took to life in Asia expertly.) Add to this, they’ve rarely needed to call upon Salem Al-Dawsari, who due to his domestic ban again is a man refreshed and ready for continental duty alongside Al-Zori and Al-Shamrani who’ve sparingly or yet to feature, there’s little weakness to pick away at in Hilal’s squad at the moment.
Lekhwiya couldn’t be in a more differing position, as their domestic campaign remains on hold to give them a break ahead of the ACL. Ironically, game time is probably the best cure for Lekhwiya at the moment, it’s hardly the best preparation for them given they have only played one match (their first leg against Hilal) since early summer and have only had a few full days’ worth of training with the squad since the international break.
The Qataris will once again be sweating on the recovery of Vladimir Weiss, who coincidentally was jointly injured and suspended for the first leg, but also looking to the form of Mohammed Muntari who after a hat-trick in World Cup qualifying for Qatar last week is looking for his first goal for his new club.
Gamba Osaka v Jeonbuk Motors (0-0 after the first leg)
For anyone that witnessed the reverse fixture a fortnight ago, I salute you for your patience. A poor first half showing, where neither looked ambitious enough to take the game to the opposition was finally invigorated in the second half with a number of promising outlets being utilised as the game’s dying embers faded away. But for the late rally, a stalemate probably appeased both managers and players, as Gamba live in the hope they will have the crowd advantage back in Osaka, while Jeonbuk know they have avoided the dreaded away goal in their own back yard.
Gamba increased their unbeaten record to 6 games over the international break, after beating Nagoya Grampus via penalties over two legs in the Nabisco Cup before overcoming domestic second stage leaders Kashima Antlers away from home at the weekend. Gamba’s domestic form, in response to their back-to-back titles over the last two years has been hit and miss. At times sparkling in attacking areas, but others blunt and prone to mistakes. While we wait to see whether a turnaround in form can see them push for a playoff spot, Osaka’s greatest silverware opportunity will definitely come in the ACL, but it really depends which of their sides turn up.
Jeonbuk’s dominant and inevitable title hunt continued with promise since their stalemate with Gamba two weeks ago, recording two victories over three matches to ensure a promising and likely unassailable 8 point lead in the K-League Classic season. The quality of the reigning Korean champions was clearly demonstrated with solid wins over the likes of Seoul and Seongnam, making it even harder to believe that they’ll put in another uninspiring ACL performance.
The key could be in the personnel selection Choi Kang-Hee has to choose from; Luiz Henrique was Motors’ catalyst against Gamba from the bench, but his selection remains up in the air over the domestic period, while Choi remains undecided as to whom to select as the out and out striker in Jeonbuk’s front line.
The key team news is the withdrawal through suspension of Gamba Osaka’s talisman Takashi Usami. The winger, who impressed on national duty with Japan, returned emphatically with a brace against Urawa Reds this weekend. His form has been indicative of Gamba’s up and down season, but for Tuesday they’ll have to rely on the likes of Abe, Patric and Lens for a greater shoulder of the burden. Influential old head Yasuyuki Konno may not add much invention going forward, but his return from suspension should solidify the centre for Gamba.
Al-Ahli Dubai v Naft Tehran (1-0 after the first leg)
The final of the four ACL quarter finals sees arguably the two outsiders for the crown face off after a tight first leg in Tehran. The script was perfectly written for Ahli who returned to Dubai with a one goal lead and a clean sheet in toe courtesy of their new Brazilian import Lima, heading in unmarked from Habib Fardan Abdulla’s corner. The former Benfica striker has already made a name for himself in the Emirates netting five times in four since his high profile transfer from Europe.
After a terrible domestic season last year, Al-Ahli’s recruitment drive which had started early with the import of the highly sought after Everton Riberio has been subsequently supplemented by the arrival of Lima and in the last fortnight Senegalese striker Moussa Sow. While the latter’s signature was after the ACL registration date, the real spending power of the club has been stepped up significantly to return to the top of not only the AGL but the continent itself. Their home record adds to their favourites tag for Wednesday’s tie, having not lost since February in all competitions but their ACL form has been less impressive drawing 4 of their last 6 in the competition 0-0 at the Al-Rashid.
While Ahli have had instant success in the transfer window over the summer, their opponents Naft Tehran have had less impact straight off the bat. The big name additions of national team defender Jalal Hosseini and Cameroonian striker Aloys Nong haven’t yet seen the desired return needed, after a drab winless start to the PGPL season, alongside a goalless return for the latter since his move from Foolad.
Expectations have never been greatly high of Naft, as one of the smaller, less established sides of Iran. With tempered hopes usually comes occasionally surprisingly effective performances. With lowered expectations after a poor start back home and an almost write off their chances in Dubai, maybe they can spring a real surprise on Wednesday.