The greatest-ever AFC Champions League quarter-finals

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

30 goals in eight games involving Asia’s top teams has to go down as the best-ever quarter-final round in the history of the AFC Champions League.

Forget about being a good advertisement for the continent.

On the same evenings when the likes of Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Manchester United all got their European campaigns underway, their Asian counterparts produced football that would not have been out of place in the UEFA Champions League, or any other competition for that matter.

What more drama could you ask for?

A side boasting global names like Hulk and Oscar almost managed to throw away a four-goal first-leg lead, finished with nine men yet managed to win in a penalty shootout.

Another team trailing 4-1 on aggregate with 70 minutes to play somehow produced a revival of epic proportions to win 5-4.

In comparison, last year’s edition only produced 16 goals in last-eight clashes, while 2015 did deliver 24 goals but not quite the same excitement.

It was not just the goals, red cards and on-field drama, but also the plot twists and storylines that truly captivated the imagination.

While the dust may still be settling, FOX Sports Asia looks at four things we learned from the past three days.

Al Hilal look the real deal

It was shaping up as the year Al Ain would lead United Arab Emirates back to the summit of Asian football.

After all, they narrowly lost out in last year’s final and were unbeaten throughout the group stage and Round of 16.

Having avoided conceding an away goal in the first leg, things were looking positive for them, until they were completely put to the sword by Al Hilal.

Star of the show, Carlos Eduardo

The reigning champions of Saudi Arabia were inspired by hat-trick hero Carlos Eduardo, but they had winners all over the park.

Osama Hawsawi continues to be an indomitable presence at the back, Nicolas Milesi provides the perfect blend of grit and guile in the engine room, while Nawaf Al-Abed is a livewire in the attacking third.

Come November, it would have been six years since a West Asian side won the Champions League.

Al Hilal have every chance of changing that.

Will the real Shanghai please stand up

How does Shanghai SIPG go from blowing away Guangzhou Evergrande – Asian champions twice in the past four years – 4-0 one day, to losing 5-1 the next?

They may have escaped via penalties but it is not that Shanghai played badly on Tuesday.

They did not play at all.

Barring his stunning extra-time freekick, Hulk was virtually anonymous, while fellow stars Oscar and Wu Lei were largely bystanders.

Hulk’s only – albeit crucial – contribution on Tuesday

There was also the matter of a woeful, at times comical, defensive display.

It has since emerged that Shanghai’s preparations were curiously hampered by a series of fishy car accidents as they made their way to the Tianhe Stadium, although that should not be an excuse.

Given their recent rise and the amount of money being invested, it is sometimes automatically assumed that Chinese sides would comfortably reach the final on the East side of the draw.

Shanghai would do well to produce a more spirited display if they want to avoid being upset by Urawa Red Diamonds.

Persepolis provide a breath of fresh air

There is something about Persepolis that makes you want them to do well.

One reason could be how, in a sometimes-confusing, modern world which advocates multiple tactical systems and inverse wingers, the Iranians still like to keep it simple and traditional.

It may seem retro these days but Persepolis have two out-and-out strikers on the field and they attack at all costs; two factors that were undeniably key to their 5-3 aggregate win over Al Ahli.

First, the part that made sense. Their desire to attack from the opening whistle – logical seeing how they had two away goals to make up for.

Then, the part that did not quite. Leading 1-0 but reduced to ten men, Persepolis had 80 minutes to see out and what did they do? Continue to push forward with intent.

Al Ahli did grab an equaliser but it was their opponents who continued to look the likelier to score again, which they did twice more thanks to two penalties in the final seven minutes – no less than they deserved.

Persepolis only know one way – forward.

Some would call this naivety and a similar approach could have cost them dearly against different opposition.

Still, there is something exciting about watching Persepolis in action and plenty of neutrals will be rooting for them to go all the way.

No fairy tale for Nakamura

A real legend of his club, and Japanese football as a whole, Kengo Nakamura has made over 400 appearances for Kawasaki Frontale and admitted to being hopeful that 2017 could be their year.

He featured in their four previous appearances at the tournament but it was their debut display in 2007, when they reached the quarter-finals, which had been their best result thus far.

For another season, at least, the last eight remains the furthest they’ve reached.

Kawasaki’s elimination at the hands of Urawa was unfortunate not only given they were at one point leading 4-1 on aggregate, but also because the first-half sending-off of Shintaro Kurumaya led to Nakamura being sacrificed in the 42nd minute.

The 36-year-old was an obvious choice to make way for fresher, more-willing legs, but he had been – and would have continued to be – Frontale’s best chance of slicing open the Urawa defence, which he did for Elsinho’s 19th-minute opener.

Kawasaki’s King Kengo, the sweetest leg peg in all of Asia?

Although he still looks he could play on forever, the truth is that time is fast running out for Nakamura to win some major silverware, with his only team accomplishment to date a J2 League winner’s medal.

The good thing is that Kawasaki are currently second in J1, five points behind leaders Kashima Antlers with nine game still to go.

A J1 League title could just finally fall Nakamura’s way or, at the very least, another shot at the Champions League in 2018.

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