ACL round of 16 review: Screamers and scraps

The four representatives from the east of the continent to reach the quarterfinals of the Asian Champions League have now been determined with a pair of clubs from both China and Japan reaching the final eight but this was another slate of matches overshadowed by some very unsavoury incidents away from the game.

On the same evening that the AFC found itself with an incident to deal with in the AFC Cup clash involving JDT, there was a nasty set-to between Shanghai and Jiangsu late on. The governing body also have one other serious problem to confront following an ill-tempered ending to Urawa’s match with Jeju.

Ill-tempered is probably a touch too kind as firstly a Jeju substitute was shown a red card for charging off the bench to elbow an Urawa player in the head and then, after the fulltime whistle, there were a series of pitched battles that involved dozens of players, staff and officials from both clubs that made Asia’s elite club competition resemble a backyard brawl.

That took the gloss off some impressive qualification performances from Kawasaki, Guangzhou, Shanghai SIPG and indeed Urawa on a slate of games that also saw Kashima’s highly regarded coach, Masatada Ishii, sacked after his club fell to Guangzhou.

We takes a look at all the talking points from the second leg ties as the tournament gets set to take a mini-break until the quarters get underway in late August.

The talking point: Post-match brawl mars Urawa’s impressive win

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If it’s not understrength squads, squabbling over buffet lunches or crowds you can count on one hand, the ACL in recent times seems to have been marred by one incident or scandal after another but the post-match fiasco in Japan may just top the lot.

With an impressive Urawa side needing two goals to overturn their first-leg loss, they did that in regulation time to send the tie to extra time where their constant pressure finally told as Ryota Moriwaki (himself recently handed a domestic ban for ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ after an incident in which he reportedly used language towards Kashima’s Brazilian Leo Silva that some found ‘offensive’) grabbed a third in the second period of extra time to put the hosts in charge.

With the hosts looking to kill off the game an increasingly frustrated Jeju side starting complaining and berating both their opponents and the officials at every perceived piece of delaying and that led to a flashpoint moment near the corner flag in stoppage time where players were pushing and shoving the assistant referee even and even manhandled a Korean player.

Jeju substitute Baek Dong-gyu then charged off the bench, bib still on, and elbowed Reds captain Yuki Abe square in the head in an ugly incident that should, if the AFC are serious and on break from their constant politicking, lead to a record ban.

Hong Kong referee Liu Kwok Man was blowing his whistle like a policeman trying to control a wild traffic incident and after producing a slew of yellow cards blew for fulltime – but that was just the signal for further trouble.

What started as spot fires of pushing and shoving became a heated, physical, confrontation across multiple areas of the pitch as players, staff, officials and even the Urawa translator – who squared up to the Jeju coach at one point – kicked off a series of ugly fights that has greatly tarnished the ACL.

That there’s little love lost between Japanese clubs and those from Korea and China is no surprise to anyone with a cursory knowledge of history and Reds have been involved in these kinds of incidents before but what’s clear is that the AFC must now act and hand out lengthy bans to every individual involved here.

The star : Yuki Abe (Urawa)

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In a side that features a couple of national team defenders and keeper as well as some exceptional attacking talents and another national team midfielder alongside him, the Urawa captain rarely makes the headlines or perhaps gets the credit he deserves.

At the age of 35 he should probably be thinking of things other than running ten plus kilometres every week as the key link in the Reds midfield but not only does he rarely, if ever, miss games or come off early he’s an incredibly consistent performer.

In Urawa’s 3-4-2-1 he’s often asked to be both the first line of attack and a key disruptive force in midfield as he drops alongside Wataru Endo when in possession to allow the other two nominal centre-backs in Tomoaki Makino and the match-winner against Jeju in Moriwaki to bomb forward and become frequent goal threats.

Against the Korean side he also pushed far higher than he usually does and continued to track back with the comfort of a player half his age every time the team lost possession.

He also hardly played a single bad pass and had the ball at his feet more often than any other player – an understated performance it may seem to some but to those who watch closely and surely his coach and captain this was another stellar showing from one of the best ‘number sixes’ in Asia.

Headline act: Kashima fire their title winning, Club World Cup standout, coach after Guangzhou loss

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Japan doesn’t really have the reputation for sacking coaches willy-nilly that other nations do but after a couple have already received their marching orders in the first few months of the domestic season came the bombshell news that Kashima’s Masatada Ishii had been fired after their loss to Guangzhou.

This was the same coach that won the J.League last year and then led the side all the way to the final of the Club World Cup where they pushed the might of Real Madrid to extra time in the final – the first time an Asian club had gone that far.

Whilst there had been tension between the coach and some star players and he was reportedly hospitalised last year with ‘stress-related’ issues he’s piloted the club to seven wins from 12 J.League matches to date and was within a goal of knocking off one of Asia’s heavyweights in the last 16 of the ACL.

It’s also not perhaps noted just how understrength the squad was with numerous regular starters out with injury and so this really is a surprise move on the surface – behind the scenes it probably reflects both on player power as well as the disappointment of a club that had made ACL success, and by extension a return to the CWC, their main priority.

Goal of the round: Hulk (Shanghai SIPG)

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Match after match the Brazilian is either a contender for or the winner of our goal of the week and this was another fantastic effort in his club’s 3-2 win over Jiangsu.

With a couple of goals already in the bag and the tie safely locked away in second half stoppage time it would have been easy to let things just wind down but Hulk had other ideas.

Receiving the ball a couple of metres inside the Jiangsu half his first touch was a piece of pure brilliance as he trapped it and spun past a defender in the same movement then powered towards goal.

A feint and some impressive balance and control took him past another and with a slight drop of the shoulder he then unloaded a powerful drive around another defender and past the keeper to seal the win – a delightful goal that may have looked easier than it actually was and there’s not many in Asia capable of producing such a piece of work.

The negative: Quarterfinal matches could be dull

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Whilst the AFC are surely thankful that they no longer need to listen to complaints about Jeju’s paltry crowds now that they’re eliminated the problem of some ‘dull’ quarterfinal matchups may bring them more headaches.

With the eastern and western halves of the continent remaining separated all the way up to the final the hope is for as much national differentiation as possible until that point.

Here we are though with both a pair of Japanese and Chinese clubs who could well – draw permitting – meet a side from their own nation in the final eight in what’s merely then a glorified domestic tie.

Personally, I’d love to see the two regions crossing over sooner than the quarters and although I understand the reasons why it’s not happening it can lead to some less than attractive meetings such as the ones we’ll potentially be dealt here.

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