Asia’s top 8 continue their tilt for ACL title

Asia’s top 8 continue their tilt for ACL title

By Matthew Collard and Steven Chang

September 14th sees the last eight sides clash in the first leg of the Quarter-Finals stage of the Asian Champions League 2011.

Contrary to expectations, only one Japanese club remains in the competition (Cerezo Osaka). The three other East Asian sides still in the running are from Korea’s K-League. From West Asia, Iran have two representatives, while Al-Ittihad and Al-Sadd are the sole remaining competitors from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, respectively.

Cerezo Osaka vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Venue: Osaka Nagai Stadium

Hiroshi Kiyotake

Cerezo Osaka’s journey to these Quarter-Finals has been an interesting one. They dramatically scored a late goal against city rivals Gamba Osaka in the Round of 16 to progress, leaving them as the sole remaining Japanese club in the competition. This achievement is made more remarkable by the fact that it is their first appearance in the ACL, and they qualified for it in a season following their promotion from the 2nd division.

Cerezo’s inexperience contrasts sharply with Jeonbuk’s history in the ACL. The Koreans became champions of Asia in 2006 after defeating Al Karama in the final, which made them the first East Asian club to claim the ACL title. Jeonbuk also reached the Quarter-Finals in 2007 and Semi-Finals in 2004, so are clearly no strangers to top-level Asian football. A curious fact to note is that Jeonbuk had never won the Korean domestic title before they won the ACL. It took them three more years when they finally won the K-League championship in 2009, coached by former Korean defender Choi Kang-Hee.

Another contrast between these two teams lies in their current domestic fortunes. Jeonbuk is storming through the K-League, sitting atop the table with a 6-point lead over Pohang Steelers. Meanwhile, Cerezo Osaka are hovering at 11th place in the J-League, and have not won in four matches. Jeonbuk will hope they can translate their brilliant domestic form into a triumph over their struggling Japanese counterparts.

The player to watch will be Cerezo’s star midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake. He has stepped up to J1 with admirable ease, but has gone even further, making three recent appearances off the bench for the Japanese national team, providing three assists. He is capable of scoring, but is best known for his creativity and unselfishness. The Osaka club will also benefit from the form of ex-Gamba Osaka striker Ryuji Bando. On the weekend he scored a hat-trick in Cerezo’s astounding comeback from 0-3 down to win 5-4 against Sanfrecce Hiroshima. However, since last ACL round, Cerezo have lost the services of young starlet Takashi Inui to VfL Bochum of the German 2. Bundesliga.

Jeonbuk’s “iron triangle” of Eninho, Lee Dong-Gook, and Luiz Henrique will be central to the Korean club’s chances in this match. Striker Luiz Henrique had the most assists of any player in the 2009 K-League season. Fellow marksman Lee Dong-Gook has scored 33 goals in 57 games at Jeonbuk, becoming the top-scorer in the club’s highly successful 2009 domestic season. Eninho, too, can contribute goals from midfield (26 in 53 games), and found a place in the K-League’s best XI in 2009 and 2010.

 

Suwon Bluewings vs Zob Ahan Isfahan FC
Venue: Suwon World Cup Stadium

Zob Ahan's Igor Castro

Two of the better defensive teams in the group stage of the 2011 Asian Champions League meet up in what is sure to be a tight encounter. Both teams only conceded three goals in their six matches and won’t be prepared to tarnish that record. But for Zob Ahan, it could be relatively more difficult – Suwon found the net 12 times during the group stage in comparison to the Iranians’ seven.

But Zob Ahan will be determined to go one better than last year however, when, in their first ever Asian Champions League final appearance, they lost 3-1 to Seongnam. They defeated another Korean side Pohang Steelers in the Quarter Finals last year and will be hoping to repeat that feat this season against the two-time ACL Champions Suwon.

But their shaky league form could prove a problem. Fifth in their domestic league, Zob Ahan have struggled to score big and hold onto leads. In a 2-2 draw they twice dropped the lead and conceded the final equaliser in the 91st minute. It was a similar story in a 3-3 draw – dropping the lead three times and the final conceded goal coming in stoppage time.

It could be an area Suwon look to exploit after proving through the current K-League season that it is all or nothing for them. With just three draws in 23 matches, Suwon won’t be afraid to put pressure on Zob Ahan late in the game and perhaps force a late winner or equaliser.

 

Al-Ittihad vs FC Seoul
Venue: Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium

Dejan Damjanovic

Saudi Arabia’s oldest football club, Al-Ittihad, play at home at Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium, facing off against FC Seoul, one of South Korea’s most popular clubs. Al-Ittihad has a history of success in top-level Asian football, having won the Asian Champions League in 2004 and 2005. They were also runners-up in 2009, defeated by Pohang Steelers in the final. By contrast, FC Seoul has had only limited success, knocking out Kashima Antlers in the 2009 Round of 16, but being defeated by Umm Salal of Qatar in the Quarter Final. That was Seoul’s best ACL performance to date.

One factor that may influence this tie is that the Saudi Professional League has only just begun on Saturday, seeing Al-Ittihad win 5-3 in Round 1 against Al Taawon. This could tip the match either way. The Saudi club will be fresher than FC Seoul who have played 24 K-League matches already this season. On the other hand, the Korean club have serious momentum behind them, riding on a wave of four successive domestic victories, which has lifted them to third position.

FC Seoul players to watch are Dejan Damjanovic and Mauricio Molina. Montenegrin striker Damjanovic is the current top-scorer of the K-League with 19 goals, and has netted 61 times in 102 games for the club. Colombian midfielder Mauricio Molina, who switched to Seoul from bitter rivals Seongnam, is a highly creative player who can also score. These two players will be particularly important given the July departure of Uzbekistani star Server Djeparov, who was AFC Player of the Year in 2008.

For Al-Ittihad, the experience of veteran midfielder Mohammed Noor will be key. Noor is known as the Saudi “Patrick Vieira”. He has played at the club for his entire career, which has consisted of a tremendous 311 games and 154 goals. Others worth looking out for are Algerian striker Abdelmalek Ziaya and young starlet Naif Hazazi, who has 24 goals in 43 games for Al-Ittihad, which is his only club to date.

 

Sepahan vs Al Sadd
Venue: Foolad Shahr

Sepahan will be banking on home ground advantage

The Qatari league kicks off its new season next weekend, and for Al Sadd it will be welcomed, after a disappointing season saw the 12-time Champions finish in sixth place, a dozen points off first. But they will be confident of a turn-around in fortunes after making the Champions League Quarter Finals stage for just the second time in seven seasons. The last time they did it, in 2005, they won the league the next season.

But progressing to the next round for the first time in the club’s history will be a tough job as they come up against newly emerged powerhouse Sepahan. Winning the Iranian league the last two seasons – taking their overall tally to three titles - the 2007 runners up will be determined to do better than last year’s Quarter Final defeat.

However, they too are struggling in the league – two wins, draws and losses each in their six matches. Nevertheless, they managed a convincing 3-1 victory over Bunyodkor – who have made the knockouts in the last four ACLs.

Both sides can leak goals, and Sepahan may feel enticed to attack strongly in this first game with their better goal-scoring record in the group stages. A two or three goal lead in the first leg may be enough to secure progression into the Semi Finals.

Both Matthew and Steven are on Twitter, and you can tweet them at @Matthew_Collard and @Gixibyte respectively.




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