Scott McIntyre rounds up all the action from the second legs of the AFC Champions League first knockout stage.
What started out as 46 teams competing for Asia’s top club prize is now just down to eight after a superb couple of days of football in the Asian Champions League saw a pair of Korean, Qatari and Iranian sides joined by a Japanese heavyweight and an emergent Chinese power.
Thankfully there were no numbers falling off shirts, no teams traveling with barely even half a substitute’s bench and no unexpected structures popping up pitchside. There was, however, the superb sight of back-to-back packed houses at the Azadi capping things off as for once the actual football took centre stage.
The fairytale run of Buriram came to an end in Jeonju, a day before Suwon overcame Ulsan to become the second Korean side into the last eight. They were joined by a Kashima outfit that lost on the evening to Shanghai SIPG but still progressed on aggregate, with Tianjin rounding out the eastern half of the draw as they eased past Guangzhou Evergrande on away goals in an all-Chinese affair.
Al Duhail’s remarkable campaign in the west continued as they crushed Al Ain 4-1 to join their fellow Qatari side Al Sadd in the last eight, with the two Tehran giants Esteghlal and Persepolis rounding out the four remaining clubs from the west.
It's time to take 🇶🇦 @DuhailSC very seriously 😮😮😮
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) May 15, 2018
Although the draw for the quarters takes place next week, the tournament itself is now on hiatus until late August when the worst of the summer heat is finished in the Middle East, but before then here’s FOX Sports Asia’s look back at all the second leg action from the Round of 16.
HEADLINE ACT: Iranian fans steal the show
As anyone who has ever been inside the Azadi Stadium on a headline matchday knows, there are few places anywhere on the planet that can rival the venue for atmosphere.
Hours before kickoff they were already there – 80,000 red Persepolis fans on Monday, followed by 76,000 blue-clad Esteghlal (with a small portion of those supporting fellow Iranian side Zob Ahan) supporters the next day.
Massive banners were unfurled by each group of supporters, the singing and chanting was constant across the 90 minutes and the atmosphere electric throughout – this was the very best of what Asian football can offer.
— AFC Champions League (@TheAFCCL) May 15, 2018
On a matchday when supporters of Suwon and Ulsan again hardly even bothered to turn up it was so refreshing to see this outpouring of passion in Iran and along with the vocal support in Guangzhou it shows just how lively the tournament can be when done well.
THE TALKING POINT: Country protection needs to be re-considered.
Having just seen that outpouring of support in Tehran on one hand it would be fantastic to see both the red and blue halves of the city drawn together at some point in what could arguably be the biggest club match ever played in Asia, but equally it would be fantastic to see them given the opportunity to do so in the final.
Under the current system of splitting eastern and western Asia all the way through to the final the tournament is robbed of some potentially huge clashes in the showpiece event and a Persepolis/Esteghlal final would capture the attention like few other club matches could do.
Understandably, for sporting and logistical reasons the competition is split for the group stages and that’s a completely reasonable situation, but I’d love to see the two regions join together from the Round of 16 to truly ensure this is a pan-Asian event and not two separate ‘conferences’ as we have at the moment.
THE STAR: Mame THIAM (Esteghlal)
In a match that was fractured by multiple stoppages with players feigning injury, protesting furiously and even hauling abuse at the ballboys when play wasn’t able to restart as quickly as they would’ve liked, the Esteghlal/Zob Ahan clash in Tehran was always played at an upbeat tempo.
What that meant though was in those moments when a football match actually broke out in amongst all the hysterics that the time in possession became vital to carve out chances, and in and amongst those was the driving figure of Mame Thiam.
HAT-TRICK HERO ALERT!
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) May 15, 2018
The 25-year-old Senegalese midfielder was regarded as a rising star when he was signed by Italian giants Inter Milan seven years ago but after bouncing around clubs in Europe he’s made an astonishing start to life in Iran.
Since his February arrival he’s scored at close to a goal a game and his hat-trick in the fevered atmosphere of the Azadi is a performance that will live long in the memory.
After he’d grabbed the first from the spot, the second was a piece of real beauty as he collected the ball well outside of the area, touched it from right to left and unfurled a rasping effort into the top left hand corner of the goal.
His hat-trick was completed shortly after the hour as he stroked home from the edge of the area, and in amongst a performance where he was a constant source of trouble whenever he was on the ball this was a truly game-changing showing from the lively forward.
GOAL OF THE ROUND – Ahmad NOUROLLAHI (Persepolis)
Both for the pure quality of the strike as well as the vital point of the tie in which it arrived Ahmad Nourollahi’s goal midway through the second half of Persepolis’ encounter with Al Jazira will live long in the minds of the red half of Tehran.
With the Emirati visitors camped deep inside their own half, as they had been for the bulk of the match, the 25-year-old – who was a hugely influential figure in the game – picked up the ball a couple of metres outside the box, tapped it twice to the right to make space and then launched a laser-like strike that flew between a couple of defenders and into the top left-hand corner of the goal.
A beautifully crisp effort at such an important part of a tight contest and one of the best goals of the tournament to date.
THE NEGATIVE – Female fans need access to Iranian stadia
Having just described what a wonderful sight it was to see the Azadi crammed full of supporters for two massive matches, the other part to the story that’s not told as often is that the vast majority of those present were men and boys.
With a formal ban on women attending male football matches still in place, a handful of brave women continue to defy the Iranian authorities by sneaking into these games ‘disguised’ as men but the time has well and truly come for an end to the need for this kind of subterfuge.
What a wonderful gesture it would be for Iran to finally accept that this form of gender discrimination has no place in 2018 and open up the venues for all football fans ahead of these crucial knockout stage matches.