With Match Day 3 of the 2018 AFC Champions League group stage done and dusted, Scott McIntyre casts his eye on all the major talking points from the East Zone.
Several clubs moved to the brink of qualification for the Round of 16 whilst a handful of others have almost slipped out of contention in a couple of days of thrilling Asian Champions League action where the goals flowed and a host of players starred.
Those eye-catching displays came though amidst a collection of teams that opted to prioritise their domestic leagues over the continental showpiece and we put it all on the agenda as Fox Sports Asia looks back at the results and ramifications from the third round of group stage matches in the eastern half of Asia.
HEADLINE ACT: An avalanche of goals sets the tournament alight
Usually when there are a record number of goals flowing on a given match day, it means that there have been a couple of unfortunate teams that are on the end of a thrashing but that wasn’t the case in this remarkable two day goal-scoring glut.
The early matches in Korea and China kicked things off as Jeonbuk saw off Tianjin 6-3 and Guangzhou Evergrande came from two goals down to play out a 5-3 thriller with Jeju and the goals kept coming thereafter.
A pair of 2-2 draws in Group F in Kawasaki and Shanghai helped push the total tally of goals across the match day up to an astonishing 32, at an average of four goals per match.
The fact that only three teams managed to keep a clean sheet (Kashima, Kashiwa and Buriram) might not best please many coaches but both loyal supporters and neutral observers were, on the whole, entertained by this rush of goals.
THE TALKING POINT: Rotation is damaging the tournament
Speaking after Buriram’s 2-0 defeat of Cerezo Osaka, goalscoring defender Andres Tunez hailed the Japanese outfit as being a ‘very strong team.’
Perhaps he wasn’t aware or perhaps it got lost in the moment but that ‘very strong team’ was all – to a player – sitting at home watching the contest in Osaka.
The ‘team’ that Cerezo fielded in Thailand was essentially the same one that will turn out as their reserve side when J3 kicks off this weekend after the coach, Yoon Jong-hwan, rested his usual starters following their J.League encounter last Friday and promoted several players not even in the bulky senior squad just to fill out the team sheet.
Similar scenes – led mostly by the J.League clubs – were being played out right across Asia: Kashima started less than half their regulars against Sydney FC, Kashiwa ‘rested’ half a dozen at home to Kitchee and Kawasaki opted to give a breather to their key playmaker, Kengo Nakamura, at home to Melbourne Victory.
These are not clubs that have either already safely secured qualification or are out of the running – but each and every one of them are in the midst of an intense battle to reach the Round of 16.
Each and every one, and others beside, opted to place far greater importance in their domestic competitions rather than the continental showpiece.
The AFC has threatened for years to stop this kind of practice and the time for patience from head office is surely now at an end – these clubs are making a mockery, plain and simple, of the ACL and something must be done to bring it to an end.
THE STAR: Ricardo GOULART (Guangzhou Evergrande)
On a match day where there were numerous fine performers – Oscar in Shanghai SIPG’s 2-2 draw with Ulsan, Jeonbuk’s hat-trick hero Kim Shim-wook and Kawasaki’s energetic right-back Elsinho who starred in the 2-2 home stalemate with Melbourne Victory amongst them – it’s hard to go past the sensational Ricardo Goulart who grabbed four of his team’s five goals in Guangzhou’s 5-3 defeat of Jeju.
With his team down 2-1 at the break at home things were looking precarious for the Chinese powerhouse who would have been rooted to the bottom of the standings had things stayed that way.
Instead goals in the 52nd, 57th, 86th and then 92nd minutes from the Brazilian ace not only secured the come-from-behind win but also shot Evergrande to the top of a tightly packed Group G.
They’ve now gone from struggling to progress to likely qualifiers for the Round of 16 thanks to this inspired second half showing from one of the best foreign players to have ever graced the ACL.
GOAL OF THE ROUND – LEE Ki-je (Suwon)
Shoma Doi’s delightful back-heel flick in Kashima’s surprise win in Sydney, Oscar’s swiveling effort in SIPG’s draw with Ulsan and Tianjin man Zhang Cheng’s impressive volley to kick things off in the nine-goal thriller against Jeonbuk were all worthy contenders for goal of the round.
In the end though we’ve given the gong to Suwon’s Lee Ki-je for his sizzling strike from outside the box to put his team ahead early in the second half against Shanghai.
After a free-kick was swung in from the right of the box the ball was punched clear by the goalkeeper only to see an on-rushing Lee sense his chance.
Having raced onto the loose ball he was still faced with a mass of bodies in and around the goalmouth but somehow he managed to guide a laser-like effort straight across the turf at the Suwon World Cup stadium on his left foot that zinged into the goal – a special goal that helped his side secure a 1-1 draw.
THE NEGATIVE – Quality dips with mass rotation
At the risk of doubling down on the same topic, the rampant rotation is not only a terrible representation for a tournament of such importance but it also created competitive imbalance as well severely hampering the quality of football on display in those matches.
Having seen such quality on display in those fixtures where the strongest teams were fielded the two fixtures most impacted through rotation were on the complete other end of the scale.
The Buriram-Cerezo encounter was played at the same kind of tempo that you’d find on a swim in the ocean in the middle of winter and with more misplaced passes than you get on a poorly paved, steep, country road and Kashiwa’s plodding first-half showing at home to Kitchee (before they brought their stars on in the second half) wasn’t much better.
Perhaps the only positive to come from these encounters is that Buriram can now lay claim to being Asia’s ‘unofficial champion’ after knocking off the incumbents but these two games perfectly illustrate why action must be taken to stop these clubs disrespecting the tournament.