Tuesday, August 31, 2010

ACL still has plenty to offer

Suwon take on Beijing Guoan in the Rd of 16
With no Australian representation left, the AFC Champions League will likely fly under the radar for most Australian sports fans.

But with action set to resume in just two weeks, there is plenty to look forward to.

Strangely enough, the four teams left from East Asia all come from the K-League. It was expected that after Urawa won in 2007 and Gamba in 2008 that we would see a period of domination from Japanese teams. That has not eventuated, instead it has been the Koreans who have taken over.

Pohang Steelers only lost one game on the way to winning the 2009 ACL, a 3-1 loss to Uzbek side Bunyodkor in the first leg of the Quarter Finals. They were able to overcome that, however, by beating the Uzbek’s 4-1 in the second leg to advance 5-4 on aggregate.

This season they are back again and will take on Iranian outfit Zob Ahan FC in the Quarter Finals. Pohang finished second in Group H behind Adelaide United to set up a blockbuster clash with J.League powerhouse Kashima Antlers.

Despite playing away from home they were able to strike early and hold on for a 1-0 win.

Zob Ahan topped Group B ahead of Bunyodkor, losing only once in the group stages. That set up an all-Iranian clash with Mes Kerman in the Round of 16. Brazilian striker Igor struck late to seal the win.

Last seasons K-League champions, Jeonbuk Hyundai, who got over Adelaide in an enthralling battle at Hindmarsh Stadium in the Round of 16, will face off against Saudi Arabian side Al-Shabab.

The Riyadh based side are coached by a man who would be well familiar to Australian football fans, Jorge Forsatti. Ex-Newcastle Jet and Adelaide United player Adam Griffiths also had a brief stint with the club.

One of the more fascinating matches will see an all-Korean showdown between Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Suwon Bluewings.

The Bluewings, under new coach Yoon Sung-Hyo, are desperate for continental success and have bolstered their squad over the summer with an eye on winning the ACL.

They have signed Japanese international Naohiro Takahara from Japanese giants Urawa Reds, pulled off the audacious signing of Pohang Steelers’ captain Hwang Jae-won, and Park Jong-jin from Gangwon FC.

Yoon is no stranger to continental success with Suwon, he was an assistant coach when they won back-to-back Asian Club Championship titles in 2001 and 2002. Yoon sees the similarities between then and now.

“We did not get good results in the domestic league in 2001 and 2002 but managed to win the continental title by beating strong Asian rivals. I hope this to happen again this year,” Yoon told the-afc.com last month.

Seongnam have been dominant in the ACL so far, easily finishing op top of Group E, which also contained Melbourne Victory, and easily accounting for Gamba Osaka 3-0 in the Round of 16.

There is also an Australian connection in this match, with towering defender Sasa Ognenovski currently playing for Seongnam.

On form you’d assume Seongnam will get the job done, they currently sit second in the K-League just one point behind league leaders Jeju United, whilst Suwon are struggling in eighth.

Suwon cannot be discounted though. After a shaky start to the K-League season they are regaining ground on the rest of the field are only three points behind getting themselves back into the ACL zone. And with the bolstering of their squad, they could cause an upset.

In the other match, Saudi outfit Al-Hilal take on Qatari giants Al-Gharafa. Al-Gharafa list Iraqi star Younis Mahmoud their books, the striker who lead Iraq to their historic 2007 AFC Asian Cup triumph and are the reigning Qatar Stars League champions.

Al-Hilal are no strangers to success either, winning the 2010 Saudi Premier League twelve times, most recently last season.

Looking beyond having no Australian teams in the competition, the rest of the competition will showcase the finest club football in Asia has to offer.

The four Korean teams will be looking to continue the East Asian dominance of the last three years and crown another K-League champion.

Meanwhile the West Asian teams will be looking to become the first team from West Asia to win the trophy since 2005, when Saudi side Al-Ittihad when their second consecutive title.

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