3 players we’ll miss watching in the AFC Champions League

Amanda Eber Amanda Eber

As the 2018 AFC Champions League prepares to enter its knockout round, Amanda Eber looks at three players eliminated at the group stage that will be sorely missed.

With the end of the 2018 AFC Champions League group stage, we bid farewell to half the teams who first embarked on this year’s quest for Asian continental glory.

Asia’s premier club competition will continue to be graced by some big names such as Hulk, Omar Abdulrahman and Ricardo Goulart but there are also those who will sadly no longer light up the continental stage.

Just who are some of these players? FOX Sports Asia picks a trio of eliminated stars we’ll miss as we leave the group stage behind and head towards the Round of 16.

1. Lee Chang-min, Jeju United, MF

Jeju United made a splash in last year’s edition of the competition, from their striking orange and white jerseys to their surprising run to the round of 16 where they fell to eventual champions Urawa Red Diamonds.

This season, however, there has been little to praise Jeju for, with the most-generous descriptions of the team topping out in well-used cliches about the typical workman attitudes of K-League sides.

In the face of the plodding mundanity Jeju offered in continental competition this year, Lee was a bright spot on the pitch in every match he played. He had already blossomed into a player to watch in the previous edition, having netted three goals in eight appearances for the team in last year’s tournament.

Even as Jeju struggled at the bottom of Group G in this year’s competition, he remained one of the most-dynamic players for the South Korean side. You never got the impression that he was resigned to defeat, like when he pushed resolutely onward for a goal in the final minutes of Jeju’s 5-3 defeat to Guangzhou Evergrande.

He will no longer play under the ACL floodlights this season, but with his stock rising steadily in the K-League, he might even make an appearance for Korea Republic at the FIFA World Cup in Russia this summer.

2. Giovanni Moreno, Shanghai Shenhua, MF

When a team is going through a rough patch, eyes tend to turn towards team leadership in search of that extra spark: the added grit or heart or whatever it is that can reverse the downward momentum of a struggling team and put them back on track.

Shanghai Shenhua have endured an even-more miserable ACL campaign than Jeju, unable to scrape a single win against their Group H opponents. And yet, night after night, their captain Giovanni Moreno has worn his heart on his sleeve and done all he can to pull his team out from the doldrums. What more can you ask from a player who leaves it all on the pitch in every match?

Shanghai Shenhua scored a paltry six goals in six matches, with Moreno responsible for half of that tally while forwards like Gao Di and Obafemi Martins were held to just one goal apiece in the entire campaign.

Moreno has been compelling to watch in continental competition this season, and the blame for a wholly disappointing team result cannot lie on his shoulders.

3. Ali Al Habsi, Al Hilal, GK

Unlike Lee and Moreno, Ali Al Habsi’s continental campaign unfolded more into a tale of potential woefully unfulfilled.

Al Hilal were the runners-up in last year’s competition and had every reason to expect a decent showing this year as well. But they found themselves without last year’s ACL top scorer Omar Khribin due to injury, which severely hampered their attacking capabilities and saw the team record merely three goals throughout the group stage.

You can’t win matches if you don’t score goals, so it’s unlikely that Al Hilal could have progressed even if Al Habsi produced the English Premier League-calibre goalkeeping of his past and turned the Al Hilal goal into an impenetrable wall.

Instead, he wound up receiving the first red card of his career in his first ACL start against Esteghlal for a handball.

It’s a pity fans didn’t get to see more of his vaunted goalkeeping prowess, as he appeared in only three of Al Hilal’s six games in the group stage before the club was eliminated from the competition.

Will these players and their clubs bounce back in next year’s edition? Only time will tell. In the meantime, all eyes will be on the 16 clubs who did manage to make it to the knockout stage as they continue on their journey for continental glory.