After the festival of goals over the opening couple of matchdays things were a little quieter as the 2017 Asian Champions League reached the halfway mark of the group stage but there were still plenty of talking points to emerge from the eastern half of the competition.
The dominance of the Chinese teams continued unabated with the trio of Shanghai SIPG, Guangzhou Evergrande and Jiangsu still remarkably yet to lose a match between them.
Japanese clubs slipped up with Urawa and Gamba – who meet in the J.League this weekend – both losing whilst the underdogs in Muangthong and Eastern continued to impress.
There were mixed results for the Korean sides, an Australia team – Western Sydney – finally won a match and in amongst all that we even had an assistant referee hold up play in the Kashima/Brisbane clash to replace a damaged flag.
FOX Sports Asia takes a look at what we learned from the third round of matches in the region’s leading continental competition.
THE TALKING POINT: Minnows continue to impress
Three years ago the AFC made the move to open up the tournament to a greater number of nations with almost a third of the total Asian countries entering clubs at some stage of the competition this year.
Whilst it’s been a struggle for most to remain competitive and reach the main draw, all those ‘smaller’ clubs should take heart from the exploits of Hong Kong’s Eastern SC and Thai champions Muangthong United.
Eastern were expected to be the whipping boys of the tournament and an opening 7-0 thumping by Guangzhou confirmed many of those fears, even if that clash did come with the rather large caveat of the team having two players sent off within the first 34 minutes.
They responded brilliantly though in the two matches since then, drawing with Kawasaki and losing 1-0 at home to Suwon this week and whilst they might not win points for style their stout defensive showings give them something to really build upon.
As coach Chan Yuen-ting noted post-match the club now has three valuable matches worth of experience in the competition and that’s something that should benefit them not just for the remainder of 2017 but indeed for years to come.
Likewise, Muangthong who, despite being tipped as dark horses for progression from the group, have impressed mightily in their three matches.
Draws on the road in Australia and Korea sandwiched in between a victory over J.League champions Kashima have them in a strong position to reach the Round of 16 and the dreams of all clubs outside the ‘big four’ leagues of China, Korea, Japan and Australia should be emboldened by the showings of this pair.
THE STAR: Yuma Suzuki (Kashima)
It’s been a long while since Japanese football or indeed Asian football more broadly has had a genuine, precocious young forward burst onto the scene but Kashima’s rising star Yuma Suzuki certainly fits that bill.
Still just 20 years old, the striker had a breakthrough season domestically last year that was capped off with some stunning performances in the FIFA Club World Cup where he scored the final goal in Antlers’ semifinal defeat of Atletico Nacional and he caught the eye too in the final against Real Madrid.
Even more remarkable has been that almost all of these outings have been as a substitute yet when handed a start he continues to shine.
A missed penalty against Muangthong in the last match hurt his team but he scored in both the opening fixture with Ulsan and again this week against Brisbane where he was named man of the match.
A lanky forward who is excellent both aerially and on the ground, it’s his brusque, direct, attitude that has also caught the eye of many keen observers and expect it to not be too long before a major club in Europe comes looking at the super young talent.
HEADLINE ACT: Foreign stars prove their worth
They might look like they’ve spent too long at the buffet but Shanghai SIPG’s frontline hitmen, Hulk and Elkeson are one hell of a double punch.
Physically imposing, technically adroit and with a strong work rate on and off the ball they stole the show from their more expensively recruited compatriot Oscar. With another fine addition in Uzbek midfielder commander Odil Ahmedov manning the centre of the pitch the foreign quartet were simply too good in a much more dominant 3-2 win over Urawa than the scoreline suggested.
That situation has also been played out throughout the tournament in Guangzhou where Alan and Ricardo Goulart have starred and Jiangsu where Ramires scored the winner for the second time in three matches.
In fact, of the 23 goals scored by the three Chinese clubs this year a remarkable 16 have come from the feet or the head of Brazilian players.
As easy as it is to watch it should also be sounding alarm bells across the region as to the development and playing time of local striking talents.
GOAL OF THE ROUND: Elkeson (Shanghai SIPG)
Marcelo’s strike for Jeju in their draw with Adelaide was a fine effort as was Jaushua Sotirio’s lob for the Wanderers in the win over FC Seoul but for pure technique and precision it’s hard to go past Elkeson’s long range curler for Shanghai.
With Urawa keeper Shusaku Nishikawa – first choice for Japan, mind you – having raced off his line to clear a ball he managed to play it straight to the feet of an opposing player who immediately fed Elkeson and with the keeper retreating the Brazilian ace took a glancing look up and that was all the time he needed.
Chipping a shot like a golfer would a wedge he got the angle right to within centimetres from almost 30 metres out from goal with the ball just beating a scrambling Nishikawa to sneak in at the back post – a truly world-class effort from a world-class player.
THE NEGATIVE: More rotation
With the AFC substantially increasing prizemoney for this year’s tournament surely the hope was that clubs would prioritise the ACL over their domestic competitions but that simply doesn’t seem to be the case.
Brisbane again played their second choice keeper in Japan as, mind you, hosts Kashima did too and they were belted 3-0; Urawa rested several stars for their journey to China as did other Japanese and Australian clubs in what continues to be a huge black eye for the tournament.
As perplexing as it is that clubs would continue to play weakened teams in the Champions League, the AFC needs to consider what they can do to stop it – and some of the resulting poor scorelines – from happening.