After 48 matches and 162 goals the group stage of the eastern half of the Asian Champions League has finally come to a conclusion.
Of the 16 that began the journey only eight remain and they join the eight clubs from the western half of the continent as the Round of 16 gets set to swing into action later this month.
As expected the headline act was all three of the Chinese Super League clubs progressing safely through to the knockout rounds whilst there’s been something of a resurgence in Japan as Urawa, Kashima and Kawasaki all progressed with only Gamba failing to make it a clean sweep of the J.League clubs.
That meant that the nation that fell the most was Korea with only Jeju reaching the second round and they weren’t even supposed to be direct entrants into the group stage prior to the AFC reluctantly withdrawing the scandal-tainted defending champion Jeonbuk.
Perhaps the biggest surprise though to many was the success of Muangthong with the Thai side finishing as runners-up in Group E after an impressive campaign that saw them lose just the once – and that was yesterday when they fell 2-1 to Kashima in Japan.
FOX Sports Asia takes a look at all the talking points from the final set of group matches in the continent’s leading club competition.
THE TALKING POINT: Staggered matches provide fuel for fixing
With the AFC opting not to have a separate draw for the Round of 16 that meant that those in one group already knew which group they would ‘match up’ with in the Round of 16.
That’s all well and good if those matches are then played on the same day, with simultaneous kickoffs, to avoid any implication of ‘arranging’ or ‘playing for results.’
Rather, for reasons only known to those in the shadows in Kuala Lumpur, we had all the matches in the same group kicking off simultaneously but the two groups who were slated to meet in the Round of 16 being played on different days.
That meant that after Kawasaki’s defeat of Eastern on Tuesday and Guangzhou being surprisingly held to a 2-2 draw against Suwon that it was the J.League outfit that unexpectedly topped their group with the Chinese powerhouse finishing as runners-up.
If you did a straw poll of most of the clubs across Asia you’d get a pretty strong response that most would want to avoid playing Guangzhou in a knockout tie and would much rather face off with a Kawasaki side that has never won a major trophy in their homeland, let alone on the continent.
Ridiculously the clubs that would face that pair were not playing until the following evening where Muangthong entered the evening on top of Kashima but after their loss finished second – and in this case that seems like a victory.
Indeed, a whole host of the team’s regular starters – to the surprise of precisely nobody – didn’t feature in that match against Antlers where to make their intent even more blindingly obvious they only bothered putting five players on the substitutes bench.
That must’ve come as something of a disappointment to a Kashima side that also didn’t seem particularly interested in winning either and this farcical situation is something that the AFC needs to address for next year.
THE STAR: Rhayner (Kawasaki Frontale)
In a match that meandered for long periods, Kawasaki’s new Brazilian forward was in the thick of everything.
He might have been gifted the opener but delightfully created the third in his team’s 4-0 win over Eastern when he burst forward down the right, brushed past and held off several defenders before delivering a wonderful pass to allow Tatsuya Hasegawa a simple tap-in.
In between times he was a constant threat whenever he was on the ball with an excellent range of passing, some great movement on and off the ball and with a powerful presence that constantly caused problems for the visitors whether in open play or from set piece situations.
HEADLINE ACT: Wu Lei scores the third fastest goal in ACL history
It all happened so effortlessly….and so fast, giving the paltry crowd present in Australia a moment to remember, if not treasure.
With Western Sydney having the first half kickoff they worked the ball towards the Shanghai goal before their fourth pass was intercepted by Elkeson who strode over halfway and laid the ball of to Wu Lei on the right.
The Chinese national star then made space for the shot and fired across keeper Vedran Janjetovic to put his team in front after all of 19 seconds – the fastest goal in the ACL this campaign and the third fastest in history.
GOAL OF THE ROUND: Teerasil Dangda (Muangthong)
Whilst you can make a strong case for Wu Lei’s early stunner to be the goal of the round there were also plenty of others contenders, including Hwang Il-su’s strike in Jeju’s win over Gamba or the second of Ricardo Goulart’s double in Guangzhou’s draw with Suwon.
The goal that gets our nod this round though was the equaliser for Muangthong against Kashima scored by one of Southeast Asia’s all-time leading marksman.
Teerasil Dangda has made a career out of being laconic and deadly in equal measures and after drifting through most of the match either side of this quality strike both qualities were well and truly on display again.
The forward received a pass from the left a couple of metres outside the box with a defender tightly marking him but in the blink of an eye he’d nutmegged that opponent and tapped the ball forward before guiding it on a very narrow angle past three defenders and the keeper with the rocket launcher shot screaming into the net.
THE NEGATIVE: Disinterest in Jeju continues
The AFC – assuming there was anybody who cares about actual football and not the tsunami of politics that they’ve been riding in Bahrain this past week – must’ve been praying that Jeju didn’t progress through to the knockout stages.
Not for the quality of their football which has been good but their ‘crowds’ add a new layer of meaning to poor turnout.
With a massive match against a strong Japanese club in Gamba and a spot in the last 16 on the line, barely three thousand bothered to show up for the third straight match – that’s assuming you believe the ‘official’ count.
The southern island may be known as the honeymoon capital of Korea but there’s a clear lack of love and affection for their football team and as I’ve said repeatedly if the club can’t sell tickets then the AFC simply needs to give them away and bring fans in however they can or risk having the latter stages of their competition blighted by the sight of a huge, empty, stadium.
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