ACL semifinals first leg: Seven things we learned

With both Jeonbuk and Al Ain taking a firm grip on their Asian Champions League semifinal ties the teams for next month’s two-legged final appears to have already been locked in.

Fox Sports Asia takes a look at seven things we learned from this week’s action in the continent’s premier club competition.

Omar Abdulrahman can play a bit

The best player in Asia turned it on in the western side of the draw as Al Ain brushed aside El Jaish 3-1, with the visitor’s goal only coming from the spot.

Known as Amoory throughout the Arabic-speaking world, the mercurial Abdulrahman was at his sublime best here, showcasing the full range of his exquisite skills.

The playmaker provided the assist for Douglas’ opener on 17 minutes and backed that up by scoring a delightful free-kick that whizzed up and over the wall and past a dumbstruck Khalifa Ababacar in the El Jaish goal five minutes later.

Then for good measure he whipped in a perfectly weighted cross for Caio to grab Al Ain’s third in stoppage time and put them in pole position to progress to November’s final.

Astonishingly this was his seventh man-of-the-match award in his 11th match of the campaign and he appears a certainty to be formally crowned as the AFC’s best at their annual awards night in November – ironically in Abu Dhabi.

Foreign stars again make the difference

Jeonbuk had the luxury of starting forward Edu on the bench but in the dynamic front-pair of Ricardo Lopes & Leonardo they have two of the best creators and finishers anywhere in Asia.

FC Seoul’s birthday boy and the leading scorer in the competition, Adriano, was kept under wraps but his compatriots in lime green dazzled throughout – as did a pair of Brazilians in the west.

Douglas – acquired from Japanese second division outfit Tokushima at the start of the season and the brilliant winger Caio, who moved from first-stage champions Kashima mid-season, were both huge losses for the J.League but have been dynamite for the club from the Garden City and it was their slick finishing here that allowed Al Ain to control with ease their clash against the Qatari visitors.

Jeonbuk simply too strong

Although things were tight for the opening quarter hour or so, the hosts sprung to life with three goals in an 18-minute spell midway through the first half to almost certainly wrap up the tie – especially given they’ve already defeated FC Seoul in the capital twice this season domestically.

As impressive as the attacking display was here – and it was excellent with the front three of Kim Shin-wook, Leonardo and Ricardo Lopes dynamic in their movement on and off the ball – it was also an outstanding defensive showing.

The visitors launched wave after wave of aerial attacks and the outstanding back four, led by Lim Jong-eun and veteran Cho Sung-hwan, were brilliant in repelling those all evening long as well as flying out to intercept dangerous balls in the final third and exceptional in their application and reading of the play.

Indeed, so intent was Lim, in particular, in winning everything that came his way, he actually cleaned up his own teammate, Lee Jae-sung, which led to a second half delay.

FC Seoul too tactically simplistic

With a target-man having the presence of Jeonbuk’s Kim you could reasonably expect it would have been the hosts adopting the ‘route one’ approach but the visitors clearly came with a plan to go long and refused to adjust it even as they fell further and further behind.

As noted above, the outstanding centre-back pairing for the hosts dealt with these challenges easily and the goal that FC Seoul did score, notably, came from a passing sequence, along the ground through midfield.

Defensively too, the back three were often let down by the failure of their wingbacks to cover the required space and they were far too easily exposed with gaping holes present for Jeonbuk to play into when they reached the attacking third.

This was a simplistic, fairly negative, tactical approach from a Seoul side that has the players to not have to adopt the direct approach and it made for a disappointing evening all-round for the visitors.

Questionable refereeing again has an impact

Whilst the Australian Peter Green got most things right in the Al Ain/El Jaish tie, Nawaf Shukralla was again at the centre of some rather unusual moments in the clash played in Korea.

Just why some of the continent’s best officials, led by the likes of Uzbek Ravshan Irmatov, Japan’s Yudai Yamamoto or indeed another Australian in Jarred Gillett were not appointed to such a high-profile fixture is something of a mystery.

Rather we had a referee from a nation without a fully professional league in Bahraini Shukralla in charge and he kick-started things by awarding the hosts a 22nd minute penalty which set them on their way – but which by most readings should never have been given.

He also gave a yellow to the outstanding Choi Chul-soon in the second half for an incident that he had very little part in but one that will now rule him out for the second leg.

Pitch leaves a lot to be desired

Whilst the surface in the Emirates – in rather trying climatic conditions – was fine, that in Jeonju was simply not fit for a match of this stature.

Bumpy, cut up and patched together like an awkwardly woven quilt this is something the AFC needs to urgently look into – especially given there’s every chance the Green Warriors will be hosting the first leg of the final in mid-November.

Crowds still not what they should be

Ten years ago I was at another all-Korean ACL semifinal in Jeonju when the hosts welcomed Ulsan and that evening you could literally – in barely a couple of minutes – count every single supporter in the stadium.

Whilst things have thankfully moved on from that point and the exposure of the tournament has vastly increased there’s still patently plenty of work to be done.

The swathes of empty seats in Korea are an eyesore and surely those tickets can at the least be given away to local clubs or schools to ensure there is no repeat come the final.

The Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain was also only two-thirds full but given that Zlatko Dalic’s side are likely to host the second leg of the final you’d at least expect a full house then.

Scott McIntyre

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