With Match Day 5 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.
With the penultimate round of group stage matches in the books, the identity of five of the eight second round qualifiers from the eastern half of the AFC Champions League draw are now known with a further five clubs jostling for the remaining three spots ahead of the final round of matches in a fortnight.
There were some real upsets in this week’s slate of games with Buriram United pulling off a fine late draw at home to continental powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande whilst Sydney FC and Ulsan turned in a couple of stunning performances to win big on the road and at home.
For Japanese pair Kashiwa and Kawasaki as well as Kitchee, Melbourne Victory, Jeju & Shanghai Shenhua though it’s the end of the road with those half a dozen nations eliminated from the running for a spot in the knockout stages.
Fox Sports Asia reviews the best and all the rest from the match day 5 fixtures.
HEADLINE ACT: Sydney FC & Ulsan turn in huge results
After a disappointing start to a campaign that promised so much, the dominant domestic force in Australia, Sydney FC, had appeared to be on their way out of the competition after going winless through their opening four matches.
That all changed rather quickly with a stunning 4-1 demolition of Suwon on the road on Tuesday that’s catapulted them back into contention for a place in the second round where a win on the final match day against already eliminated Shanghai Shenhua and Suwon failing to win at already qualified Kashima will see them do just that.
Even more impressive was the 6-2 annihilation that Ulsan handed a Melbourne Victory side that had impressed so many with a win over Kawasaki in the previous round of matches.
It’s amazing to think that the side from the south-east of South Korea currently sits bottom of their domestic league after having lost all four of their opening matches as this was a dominant showing from start to finish.
They scored some delightful goals but more than that was the constant up-tempo manner that they played in with a very high work-rate, constant movement off the ball, a rotation of players through multiple positions and some delightful passing sequences – one of the finest showings in this year’s tournament by any club.
THE TALKING POINT: Locals back amongst the goals
We’ve been so accustomed to seeing foreign stars steal the goal scoring limelight in the ACL that it was a pleasant surprise to witness a whole host of not only fine performances generally but also especially those in front of goal by local Asian stars.
One of the greatest players to have graced the competition – Jeonbuk’s ageless wonder Lee Dong-gook – kept increasing his lead at the top of the all-time tally (although Dejan Damjanovic is giving him a real run for his money) as he grabbed the second in his club’s 2-0 win at Kashiwa that confirmed their place in the Round of 16.
That though was just one of the 13 goals that local players scored over the 25 recorded in the eastern half of the draw this week and they’re positive signs that the tournament is not all about the foreign power in front of goal.
THE STAR: Mislav ORSIC (Ulsan)
It’s perhaps slightly understandable in a tournament littered with some massive names from Europe and South America that Mislav Orsic flies under the radar in most discussions of the leading foreign stars in the ACL.
Not so when you consider the consistently outstanding performances that he’s turned in for Ulsan this year where, for me, he’s been the best player – foreign or local – amongst any of the clubs in the east.
Still amazingly underrated, the Croatian is a whirlwind of energy and movement who has been absolutely essential to his team’s hopes of progression that will now come down to the final day.
The 25-year-old does a mountain of work off the ball, constantly tracking deep to help out in winning possession and moves with the same speed and sharpness at the end of the match as he does at the start.
Technically superb, equally comfortable with either foot and frequently shifting between a role as a left winger and as one of the front pair it’s astonishing – with respect to Ulsan – that he’s playing at this level and given the qualities he possesses surely it won’t be long before some huge clubs on the continent or back in Europe come calling.
GOAL OF THE ROUND – Mislav ORSIC (Ulsan)
With the game already well and truly put to bed, Ulsan could’ve been excused for easing off over the closing stages of their encounter with Melbourne Victory.
Rather than that they went and scored a delightful 75th minute goal that iced the stunning 6-2 win.
A short throw-in from the left saw the aforementioned Orsic pick up the ball from substitute Jeong Dong-ho and after poking it a couple of times to make space for the shot he unleashed a rocket from just outside the top of the box that flew past a despairing Lawrence Thomas to seal this fabulous result for the domestic strugglers.
THE NEGATIVE – Absent stars continue to upset competitive balance
Riku Matsuda, Yusuke Maruhashi, Kota Mizunuma, Yasuki Kimoto, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Kwoun Sun-tae, Gen Shoji, Shoma Doi, Mu Kanazaki, Kengo Nakamura, Yu Kobayashi, Hiroyuki Abe, Akihiro Ienaga, Shogo Taniguchi.
These are just of the stars that are nailed-on first team regulars at their club sides who played in their team’s domestic fixtures prior to this round of ACL matches (and will do so again this weekend) who were withdrawn from the continental showpiece midweek.
With the prize money for finishing third in the J.League on par with winning the entire ACL it’s understandable in one sense as to why Japanese sides have been openly – and brazenly – flaunting tournament regulations in 2018 but as I’ve written consistently it’s time for someone at head office in Malaysia to take control of this situation and ensure that the AFC’s leading tournament is treated with the respect it deserves.