Scott McIntyre looks back at all the action from the East Zone of the AFC Champions League on Match Day 2 of the 2018 campaign.
Whilst the heavyweights are already starting to emerge on the western/central half of the AFC Champions League, in the east, things are much tighter with only two clubs holding a perfect record after the second round of group stage matches concluded in China on Wednesday evening.
Last year’s semi-finalists Shanghai SIPG and 2016 champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are the only clubs with back-to-back wins to kick things off. This week’s action saw plenty of exciting matches in Hong Kong, China, Korea Republic and Japan with no fewer than 25 goals raining down across the two days where there were several standout teams and individuals and, as there always is, a touch of controversy thrown in too.
FOX Sports Asia looks back at the eight games in the East for our match day review with all the highlights and lowlights.
HEADLINE ACT: Shanghai SIPG’s attacking riches sparkle
It will be a debate worth having in greater detail as the competition unfolds: is Shanghai SIPG’s ‘front six’ the best collective attacking force we’ve seen in the history of the Champions League?
They’re certainly already making a compelling case.
With the powerful Cai Huikang anchoring things, variously both the athletic Uzbek international Odil Ahmedov and the silky Brazilian Oscar are given licence to push forward as traditional ‘number eights’ and – from their vision and creativity – the front three are able to weave almost unlimited damage.
For a man of such a build, the agility and delicate touch of Hulk seem as though they come from another player – he’s a brick wall built of feathers such is his superb technique allied with a fierce determination to win everything.
It’s a perfect foil for the direct pace and lively trickery on the ball of the brilliant Wu Lei on the left, with another powerful presence in the shape of the dynamic sharp-shooter Elkeson being the brute force in the central role.
Each one of these fine players compliment the other and, having spent several years together, their understanding of not only their own roles but also the strengths of the other is now at an advanced level. Although there remain issues defensively for SIPG, with this kind of brilliant array of talent going forward, it’s going to take a very good side to stops them from winning it all this year after their last-four exit in 2017.
THE TALKING POINT: Time for VAR?
With VAR now having been introduced in a couple of leagues across the span of the Asian continent it’s certainly time to consider its application in the AFC’s showpiece tournament.
Not without issues in both South Korea and Australia, nevertheless it certainly will help to clear up some of the controversy that we’ve seen over the first couple of matchdays with some headline grabbing decisions that could well have impacted results in both Japan and Korea this week.
To say that the first half penalty that Suwon Samsung Bluewings were awarded in a match that they ultimately lost 2-1 to Kashima Antlers was soft is selling things short – and there’s no question that should VAR have been in place then Waguininho’s rather theatrical dive would have been spotted and the penalty not given – perhaps it was justice that the resulting spot kick was saved and Antlers went on to win.
Their fellow J.League side Cerezo Osaka were on the other side of the equation as two late incidents had a huge bearing on their ability to hang on for a scoreless draw at home to Guangzhou Evergrande. Firstly, the visitors were adamant that a late foul should have been awarded as a penalty rather than a free-kick just outside the box and then from that effort it appeared as though goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyeon caught the ball over the line – but with a less than perfect camera angle and no VAR these are all arguments for cafes and bars, even though it’d be nice to have them settled definitively with the technology that’s available.
THE STAR: Nemanja Gudelj (Guangzhou Evergrande)
With all the focus on the ‘superstars’ currently in China and the constantly shifting foreign regulations that the CFA seem to pluck out of nowhere each year there are those ‘visa players’ of less profile and pedigree that continue to impress in the country, both in the first division as well as the CSL.
One – and it’s unclear how much involvement he may have in the league – is the energetic Serbian Gudelj who impressed at Tianjin TEDA last year before his move south for the 2018 campaign.
In the scoreless draw with Cerezo he was his usual bundle of energy, operating in the No. 8 role (that he was correctly kitted out in) where he was a surging force going forward, constantly on the move, dragging players this way and that and then picking both the moment and place with his passing to keep the side rolling forward.
In his defensive work too he was outstanding – scanning and reading the play and then pouncing to make several vital interceptions or cut off passing lanes; a fine showing from one of the best deeper midfielders in the tournament.
GOAL OF THE ROUND – Oscar (Shanghai SIPG)
More than most weeks, this match day was laden with quality strikes – several of which would have been good enough to have taken our top honour in a less crazy slate of matches.
Cristiano’s volley in Kashiwa Reysol’s draw with Tianjin Quanjian was superb, both Ulsan Hyundai goals in their upset win over Kawasaki Frontale were fine efforts from outside the box – the first from Jung Jae-yong and the second from Lee Yeong-jae but, for an opera in three parts, it’s impossible to go past Oscar’s superb second in Shanghai SIPG’s 4-1 rout of Melbourne Victory.
Picking the ball up wide on the left touchline he gave young Victory substitute Thomas Deng a masterclass in control, movement and guile as he firstly pushed the ball past him and then having played a quick one-two with Wu Lei he twisted a retreating Deng outside and inside and then sent a laser-like shot flying into the top right hand corner of the goal from the tightest of angles – a superb strike from a superb player.
There’s simply no getting around the fact that a handful of nations – particularly South Korea – continue to let the tournament down with the paltry amount of supporters that turn up to watch what are generally highly entertaining clashes.
Even Suwon – who have strong local backing in the K-League – managed to draw less than 5,000 for the visit of one of Japan’s best clubs in Kashima and that followed on from the continued eyesore that are the ‘crowds’ that turned up for Jeonbuk and especially Jeju in the first round of matches.
To top it all, Ulsan could only draw a generously calculated 2,398 for their home opener against the J.League champions, Kawasaki.
As I’ve said for years it’s simply not good enough and something needs to be done to stop it – local journalists need to be given all the resources possible from head office to help craft stories and if needs be every local player or fan in the region should be bussed in and given free tickets.
Something – anything – to try and give the game the backdrop it deserves because a couple of thousand fans turning up to the continent’s leading club tournament is just not acceptable, even in a baseball obsessed nation such as Korea.