Scott McIntyre rounds up all the action from the exciting first legs of the AFC Champions League Round of 16.
After several thrilling encounters in the Round of 16, first-leg, matches this week there’s all still to play for as no club really put themselves in an unassailable position.
With seven teams winning and five of the eight grabbing away goals, there’s sure to be plenty of excitement still to come in the second-leg matches after just the lone draw.
There was plenty of typically curious moments on and off the pitch, including the dismantling of the towering, mysterious, structure that had dominated the corner of the pitch in Tianjin, as well as a smoke bomb that went off during the all-Iranian clash between Zob Ahan and Esteghlal.
Several red cards, several fine goals and standout performers as well as a previously banned former champion deciding to travel with only three substitutes – we cover all this and more in our wrap of the first-leg action.
HEADLINE ACT: Buriram shine again
Tuesday’s 3-2 win over a Jeonbuk side that astonishingly thought it necessary to bring only three substitutes was not only a wonderful result, but it came with a very strong performance and one that showed that teams which continue to look down on Buriram with this arrogance of playing understrength sides will continue to get hurt.
Some slick goals were matched by a hard-working approach in midfield and a very controlled and organised defensive showing. One that limited the danger posed by a Jeonbuk side that – in their starting XI at least – possess some very dangerous attacking threats.
Just as impressive was that once Buriram had taken and then re-taken the lead, they didn’t panic and they didn’t retreat into their shells.
Rather, they still looked to push forward and whilst the stoppage time goal they conceded means there’s still plenty of work to be done, the Thai giants can now travel to Korea next week with plenty of hope.
You can bet that they also won’t travel with just 14 players. Against a team that disrespected both the club and the tournament by doing so most of Asia will be hoping they can finish the job in Korea.
THE TALKING POINT: Can anyone stop Al Duhail?
With much of the focus in the early stages of the ACL centred on the bigger clubs in the east, the brilliant form of recently crowned Qatari champions Al Duhail has been somewhat overlooked.
Fresh from wrapping up their domestic league title without losing a single match, they’ve also bulldozed their way through the ACL up to this point, winning all six of their group stage matches, and now seeing off the might of Al Ain 4-2 away from home in this week’s first leg encounter.
Cruising at 4-0 up and then denied a very strong penalty appeal on the hour, they allowed the Emirati champions a slight window of opportunity by conceding two goals thereafter. But with Al Ain’s dynamic playmaker Caio sent off and suspended for the second leg it’ll take all the magic that Omar Abdulrahman and co. can conjure up to halt the seemingly unstoppable progress of Duhail.
THE STAR: LIM Jong-eun (Ulsan)
Whilst it’s the attacking talent that tends to star in the group stages with the arrival of the knockout round and teams tending to play more conservatively, often it’s the defence that can determine where matches are won or lost. And there were several impressive showings right across the eight matches.
In Korea though there was one player that really caught the eye and that was Ulsan’s Lim Jong-eun.
Ulsan have quietly emerged as something of an underdog title contender in the ACL this year thanks largely to the outstanding form of playmaker extraordinaire Mislav Orsic along with the impressive midfield talents of Park Joo-ho and Hwang Il-su. But the southern club picked an ideal time to collect their first clean-sheet of the campaign in a solid 1-0 win at home to Suwon.
At the heart of that strong defensive showing was Lim, playing as the right-sided central defender next to Kang Min-soo, where he was a hugely composed figure.
Never flustered, and consistently winning tackles cleanly where he was then able to maintain possession, it was his calmness under pressure that stood out. He also showed the ability to slow the tempo of play and maintain possession when many on both sides were simply content to lump the ball forward after it was won.
The 27-year-old has never been a star name, but is a consistent performer and with more composed displays like this he could well help Ulsan to keep quietly progressing through the competition.
GOAL OF THE ROUND – EDGAR (Buriram)
Not only was the Brazilian’s second strike of the evening the best goal of the current round it’s also arguably the best seen in the tournament this year.
Having collected the ball inside his own half, he charged towards goal with three defenders in front of him and two hot in pursuit – he brushed past one and off another he then paused, moved to the right and just as quickly back to the left before firing past the keeper at his near post.
A magical goal that will be on highlight reels for years to come and an absolutely vital one in terms of the context of the tie.
THE NEGATIVE – Jeonbuk bring three substitutes to Thailand
Having argued consistently that Cerezo Osaka and others have disrespected the competition, it’s only fair that Jeonbuk get the same treatment after their astonishing decision to travel with just three substitutes – including a goalkeeper – to their clash with Buriram.
Yes, they have a busy domestic schedule, and yes, they are also struggling with injuries, but having played a largely reserve side in their K-League match at the weekend there is simply no excuse not to then have a half a dozen or so players join the main selection that had travelled early to Thailand.
It’s frankly astonishing that the AFC sits by and continues to allow this to happen, and it’s also incredibly insulting to both the competition and to Buriram specifically that this was allowed to happen.
For a club that already has a curious history in this tournament, having been banned last year, perhaps it’s time to consider another heavy sanction.
If the ACL is to continue to grow and reach its full potential, then clubs like Cerezo and now Jeonbuk must be handed the heaviest punishment possible to show them that if you continue to act in an arrogant, disrespectful, manner then you can forfeit your place to those clubs that genuinely want to take part in the continent’s elite club competition.