With four of six matchdays in the group stage of the ACL locked away there is still only one club that has confirmed their qualification to the second round and surprisingly none that have been eliminated.
Congratulations are in order for an impressive Jiangsu outfit that swept aside Gamba Osaka 3-0 to make it a perfect four wins in Group H but there are several other clubs who are all but qualified.
Urawa’s narrow 1-0 win over Shanghai SIPG sees that pair locked six points clear of FC Seoul and Western Sydney at the head of Group F and it would take some kind of a miracle for the Japanese and the Chinese clubs not to progress.
Hope is perhaps all that Eastern, FC Seoul and Western Sydney have though after the conclusion of another action-packed round of matches across the eastern half of the continent.
FOX Sports Asia takes a look at what we learned from the fourth round of matches in the region’s leading continental competition.
THE TALKING POINT: Empty stadiums continue to be an eyesore
This is Asia’s premier club competition where the best of the best meet and for the most part the matches (in the east at least) up to this point have been a wonderful demonstration of the growing technical level across the continent, the impetus that a collection of foreign stars can provide and has come laced with some thrilling goals and dazzling play.
At some venues, mostly in China, Thailand and Hong Kong those matches have been played to a fitting backdrop of colour, noise and passion.
In many others though the spectators could have walked about and introduced themselves to everybody else in the venue prior to the halftime break.
Korea has historically been and remains the major problem and the eyesore in Suwon where less than 3,000 people bothered to turn up to the cavernous World Cup Stadium could have been the biggest black eye of the lot.
Where are the fans?
Indeed, it would have been if their compatriots down in Jeju hadn’t outdone them with a paltry 2,289 showing up to yet another former World Cup venue.
Barely 5,000 in both Brisbane and Western Sydney (almost a third of their total number of season ticket holders) were also major disappointments and the time has come for the AFC to do something about it.
More than a decade of covering this tournament has shown me clearly that the governing body and their partners spend far more time and care covering up offending sponsors logos at match venues than actually trying to promote these games and that must now change.
Along with that they should look at switching the matches to smaller venues and/or simply give away as many tickets as they can in these wasteland venues but the key is to try and actively promote their own product and not rely on an often disinterested local media to do it for them.
The banks of empty seats on TV and lifeless atmosphere are why so many within Asia are disdainful of this ‘product’ – even as the on-field performances show there is so much to crow about.
THE STAR: Shusaku NISHIKAWA (Urawa Red Diamonds/JPN)
Japan has arguably never produced a world-class goalkeeper even as they have had several ply their trade in foreign leagues for varying amounts of time.
In fact compared to several of the other ‘leading’ Asian nations in South Korea, Australia, Iran and even Thailand the Japanese custodians have been far closer to average than exceptional.
— 西川周作 (@SHUSAKU_1) April 12, 2017
The current crop of keepers at the national level are all solid options but far too frequently let down by simple mistakes that continue to blight their game and even as Urawa’s Shusaku Nishikawa continues to clock up the appearances for the national team his form both there and at club level is highly inconsistent.
On Tuesday evening though, in the rain at the home stadium for both his club team and national side he had a truly memorable match.
String after string of saves were made, some down low, some up high, some spectacular leaping efforts, and all the way he continued to cajole, organise and lead his side from the back.
He also saved a penalty from Brazilian star Oscar along the way, and arguably forced him into blazing another wide during the second half of Reds’ win over Shanghai.
Just who decided to award the Man of the Match to his teammate Rafael Silva is unclear because there was no question who the star of the evening – and of the round – was.
HEADLINE ACT: Muangthong’s fairytale continues
Hardly anybody gave Muangthong a shot at progressing from a group that contained J.League champions Kashima as well as strong teams in Ulsan and Brisbane yet here we are after a 1-0 win over the Korean side with the Thai outfit sitting alone atop the Group E standings.
As fullback Tristan Do told FOX Sports Asia in the buildup there is a great belief in the side at the moment and that was on full display in another impressive victory on Wednesday evening.
The movement both on and off the ball was dynamic, the passing crisp and if not for some wayward finishing the final scoreline could and perhaps should have been even greater.
Regardless, the Twin Qilins now sit four points clear of third-placed Ulsan and on the verge of reaching the Round of 16 and they are one of only nine clubs across the entire ACL to remain undefeated.
Not just the results but the way that they’ve played are a fantastic testament to the work that has been done in developing Thai football in recent years and should be a strong signal to other ambitious clubs in Southeast Asia that they have the players capable of competing at this level.
GOAL OF THE ROUND: Alex Texeira (Jiangsu)
The laser from Kim Jae-sung in Adelaide’s win over Jeju was an impressive effort as was Jonathan’s first in Suwon’s demolition of Eastern but the prize goes to Jiangsu’s Alex Texeira for his third minute strike against Gamba.
Robbing the visitors of possession (from Japan’s all-time caps leader in Yasuhito Endo nonetheless) in the middle of their half he charted a course away from goal that seemed to suggest he was looking to cross the ball but after glancing up he then chipped the ball to evade the retreating defence and fall delightfully past goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi.
THE NEGATIVE: Mixed bag for Brazilian stars
After lighting up the group stage to this point and plundering an astonishing number of goals along the way it was a quite couple of days – in front of goal at least – for several of the handsomely remunerated contingent from Brazil.
The major villain was clearly Shanghai’s Brazilian star Oscar who saw his first penalty – controversially awarded – well saved by Shusaku Nishikawa and then blazed his second (this time correctly awarded) clear into the Saitama evening.
When you’re getting paid the kind of money he is, missing one penalty is not in the script, missing two in the same match is close to unthinkable.
Guangzhou’s pair of Samba stars in Alan and Ricardo Goulart were also very well contained by a vastly understrength Kawasaki outfit in Japan although there were still some impressive showings from Jiangsu’s Brazilians and Suwon’s Johnathan helped himself to a brace in Suwon’s 5-0 thrashing of Eastern in South Korea.