Another eventful week of Asian Champions League action is behind us, and while many thought two of the quarter-final fixtures had been virtually sealed prior to the kick off of the second leg, some fine competitive action was to be seen at all four stadiums. In the end, we saw two draws and two tight wins that both Tom Danicek and James Eugene will review for you step by step…
Guangzhou Evergrande vs Kashiwa Reysol
First Leg: Kashiwa 1-3 Guangzhou
Second Leg: Guangzhou 1-1 Kashiwa
Guangzhou win 4-2 on aggregate
- An unfocused and harsh-tackling Guangzhou Evergrande still progress with ease as expected
When reviewing their doings in the first leg, I called Guangzhou Evergrande “bullies”. And you know what? I meant it as a weird compliment.
They were utter professionals, passively aggressively manoeuvring their opponents into positions they fancied them in. To draw a cheeky comparison, it was the sort of ‘defensive domination’ Chelsea prouded themselves on last season.
This time around, the Chinese went a bit too far with the whole ‘bully impersonation’ thing. On Tuesday, they were a tad too rough and truth be told, they were also incredibly lucky to finish the game with 11 players on the pitch.
Early in the match, Zhang Linpeng should have seen a yellow card for a mistimed tackle on Cristiano, by which he’d somehow set the tone of the battle.
The Kashiwa Reysol ace got fired up by that dangerous act, scoring with a nicely controlled header soon after and creating some good opportunities in the remaining passages, whereas Zhang Linpeng didn’t learn any lesson and produced a red-worthy challenge later on. A challenge, for which he paid a high price…
Maybe it was the demanding week-end clash vs Shanghai SIPG, with nothing less than a league title at stake, but this star-studded Guangzhou side (truly the strongest XI possible) was simply not its usual self.
Feng Xiaoting was another defender to commit an unnecessarily cynical tackle, while at a different point of the match, it was a terribly messed up clearance what allowed Kashiwa a glorious opportunity to go back ahead after Huang Bowen equalized through an absolute beauty of a volley. That’s just not your classic continental powerhouse.
Even set pieces let Guangzhou down on the day. While all their three goals in the previous encounter stemmed from dead ball situations, now you could see Luiz Felipe Scolari losing his cool even before the set piece was actually taken. In that particular case, Zheng Long then just desperately skied his shot well over the bar instead of firing in a cross from tight-ish angle.
The Chinese champions really weren’t in their own skins on Tuesday, as demonstrated also by Elkeson’s unfamiliar wastefulness in front of Kashiwa goal, and so the Japanese can only regret they couldn’t make more out of this unexpected advantage.
There was significantly more urgency to their attacking play, not just tons of useless ball possession as weeks ago, but given Kashiwa’s star players (such as Taketomi or Kudo) came nowhere near to their best, it was hard to make the favourites truly and completely crumble under the higher pressure…
Lekhwiya vs Al Hilal
First Leg: Al Hilal 4-1 Lekhwiya
Second Leg: Lekhwiya 2-2 Al Hilal
Al Hilal win 6-3 on aggregate
- Vladimír Weiss returns to action to provoke a trademark Al Hilal scramble and do nothing about a heavy aggregate loss
As for the first leg, it was Tuesday when some actual football was on. This week, the roles seemed to be reversed. I can’t really comment on the first half, as I missed it entirely, but judging by some Twitter commentary it hardly made this re-match an enjoyable event on its own.
With the first Al Hilal goal deemed valid despite an obvious offside as the stand-out moment, how could it possibly be considered an overwhelmingly positive experience?
Early in the second half, it looked like Lekhwiya are in for a genuine push. They would seem to be concentrated and extra motivated, besieging the opponent’s penalty area as if it was the Middle Ages.
Moreover, Chico equalized with quite a lot of time left (cca 20 minutes) and even before that, the Qataris saw Muntari miss a glorious chance (hence go back to his standard after the free-scoring international break) and ended up registering two or three rather weak penalty shouts.
Sadly, the finish wasn’t akin to the previous second half action, being more of a continuous fight rather than anything else.
Albeit Vladimír Weiss, finally back from a shoulder injury, came on in the 66th minute with a view of spurring the late push by Lekhwiya, his main contribution ultimately proved to be a mass brawl, instigated in collaboration with Salem Al Dawsari and involving virtually everyone on the pitch.
Still, this arguably wasn’t the most disgraceful act of the night as this Digão’s dig followed soon after…
Classic Al Hilal; they can’t do it peacefully, can they?! No wonder (and no excuse either) Chico was so livid after the final whistle…
Gamba Osaka vs Jeonbuk Motors
First Leg: Jeonbuk Motors 0-0 Gamba Osaka
Second Leg: Gamba Osaka 3-2 Jeonbuk Motors
Gamba win 3-2 on aggregate
- Gamba head coach invades the pitch and sees a red card in the aftermath of what surely was an instant Asian Champions League classic
With the league title virtually sealed, with the Usami absence on the other side, with an early away lead and a late aggregate lead… how on earth do you throw this away, Jeonbuk?
On the face of it, the second leg looks a bit surreal. It was a drama par excellence, I’m talking Iran-Iraq Asian Cup level; plenty of emotions mixing in the process, especially in the crazy late stages.
Also, while the other game in the East Asian zone failed to produce a spectacular individual effort, here we noted one: Gamba forward Patric was functioning in his beast mode for a change, powering through Jeonbuk’s defence with ease and constantly creating chances for himself as well as his teammates.
Even if the score frantically changed in the late stages, though (3x in the final 15 minutes), it’s not very difficult to call where exactly the game was decided earlier. And although I don’t particularly enjoy blowing my own whistle, I have to say I saw it coming. Well… sort of. (Yonekura scored the decider.)
The first predictably important aspect of the game; set pieces. I highlighted them as one of the potential key areas of this tie, and whilst the first leg failed to prove me right, yesterday made up for it.
Both first goals resulted from set pieces and Leonardo, perhaps a bit underrated crosser of the ball generally, remained in the centre of all dangerous action with his immaculate delivery for the rest of the match.
Secondly and more importantly; Lee Keun-ho and his position. You know, sometimes it’s not enough to just put a former Asian Footballer of the Year on the pitch to simply watch what he can do, and it certainly never works this way with – let’s face it – such a limited player Lee Keun-ho embodies at this stage of his career.
The ‘marquee loanee’ may have once been tipped for the stars, but he’s now mainly a hard working forward whose success is derived from determination and pace to arguably much greater extent than most, including the head coach Choi Kang-hee, are willing to admit.
Blame the dreaded military service, sure, but that’s about all you can do about it.
That’s not to say Lee Keun-ho is a bad player, not at all, but he’s certainly not a trequartista by any stretch of imagination, and that’s exactly what he was asked to do once again – slot in the hole and link the midfield and the ageing Lee Dong-gook.
Instead of deploying Lee Jae-sung higher up the pitch, which would give him freedom and an actual role, Choi opted for experience; hoping for the magic dust effect that’s going to solve everything and ignoring Lee Keun-ho’s obvious shortcomings as well as the fact Lee Dong-gook is past it and not a striker for counter-attacking anyway.
It’s mainly down to Choi’s poor man management – after all, I’m convinced Lee Keun-ho would be more effective even on the right wing (you still remember the Asian Cup, eh?) in place of the disappointing Han Kyo-gwon – but to put it simply, Lee Keun-ho’s loan has proved to be disruptive to Jeonbuk.
Asking Lee Jae-sung to simply distribute balls from deep is like wanting Kevin Spacey to play the main character in a Roland Emmerich movie. It’s nonsense, a patent waste of one’s talent and – in case of Jeonbuk and Lee – also an important factor that stands firmly behind their inability to impose themselves on Gamba, or to control the second half.
Al-Ahli vs Naft Tehran
First Leg: Naft Tehran 0-1 Al-Ahli
Second Leg: Al-Ahli 2-1 Naft Tehran (The full match can be viewed here.)
Al-Ahli win 3-1 on aggregate
- Al-Ahli have earned themselves a spot in the semi-finals against Al-Hilal
Although most predicted that the home side were going to win the tie, Naft Tehran, at times, showed that they were no pushovers. Their determination, while noble, was not enough to overturn the goal deficit brought over from the previous meeting between the two sides as Al-Ahli dominated the majority of the game.
The game started off positively, with both sides showing attacking intent, albeit not troubling their opposing goalkeepers as much as they would have wanted to. The best bit of build-up play in the early moments of the first half came from the visitors when Nong linked up with Amiri, playing an exquisite one-two but the former’s finish could have been better as his shot was confidently saved by the goalkeeper.
It didn’t take too long to break the deadlock however. Rodrigo Lima, Al-Ahli’s Portuguese forward, got the game off to a flying start with an impressive goal from distance in the 26th minute. He manged to turn, dip his shoulders and send a powerful shot into the bottom corner past the hapless goalkeeper. It was an excellent goal from the €7 million signing who now has an impressive six goals in five matches.
Despite the game slowing down towards the tail-end of the first half, the half that followed proved to be one of the most entertaining halves of the round. Ismaeel Al Hammadi, a stand-out performer in the first half, threaded an exquisite through ball to Ahmed Khalil who was brought down my Naft Tehran goalkeeper Beiranvand. Khalil confidently stepped up to the spot and executed a perfect (yet cheeky) “Panenka” past the goalkeeper, making the tie 2-0 to the home side and 3-0 on aggregate.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the game was over and there was no chance Naft Tehran could score, especially as Al-Ahli were dominant in possession. However, a long ball launched from the away side’s box was a catalyst for a comical Walid Abbas clearing volley as the defender completely misses the ball and allowed Bhaid Amiri to toe-poke a consolation goal for Naft Tehran.
There were no further goals during the rest of the game, especially as Beiranvand was pulling off save after save, the most notable one came after Khalil delivered a pile-driver free kick from distance, forcing the keeper to pull off a spectacular save and parry the ball away.
Despite the good saves, Beiranvand almost gifted the opposition another goal by scuffing a kick but was lucky not to compound any more bad luck on the team. His luck also included the home side’s poor attempts at killing the game off. A notable moment was when Ribiero played Fardan Abdualla through to set him one-on-one with Beiranvand, but he was unable to capitalise on the chance.
Naft Tehran’s center back Carlos Santos had an incredible final 20 minutes for the team. Firstly, he could have potentially given his team a chance to get back into the game if his attempt did not rattle the woodwork. Secondly, he pulled off one of the best goal-line clearances, sprinting back from one of the field to the other to prevent the deficit from widening further.
Unfortunately, the game was marred by mini-brawls and crunching tackles. Towards the end of the second half, Nong forcefully gave the ball to Ahmed Mahmoud so he could take a goal kick but ended up hurting the goalkeeper instead and his actions sparked off a mini brawl between the two teams.
Al-Ahli will now be preparing for their clash with Al Hilal, with the first game being played in Riyadh on 29th September before the return fixture on 20th October.