Asian Champions League back in February have all survived the first round intact. China have lost at least three of theirs and it could be all four while Japan will see at least one and probably two fall by the wayside.
But in the Land of the Morning Calm, it has been a comfortable, stress-free progression. Pohang Steelers, Suwon Bluewings, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Jeonbuk Motors are all through to the round of sixteen having played just five of the six group games.
It is an impressive achievement to see all four progress unscathed but actually, it could have been better. The top two teams from each of the eight groups progress to the knockout stage but not all are equal. Finishing in first place ensures that the one-off game in the next round is played at home. Finishing second means a journey elsewhere.
Seongnam is the best-placed and is already certain of a home tie. The Yellows can sit back and see who will finish first or second in Group G. At the moment, that is Suwon Bluewings. It remains to be seen if either team will welcome meeting such a familiar foe on the continental stage. The local media certainly will.
Suwon’s players are kicking themselves that they are not currently occupying top spot instead of Gamba Osaka. In last week’s match in Japan, Suwon was level at 1-1 with seconds remaining until the defenders somehow let Gamba’s 17 year-old striker Takashi Usami score the decisive goal. The 2-1 win puts the J-League team in pole position.
"I thought we were heading home with one point in our hand,” lamented Suwon coach Cha Bum-keun who is lamenting often these days. “But our players seemed to have lost their concentration in the last part of the game. We gave up their first goal so easily and so soon after our first goal, and that hurt us. We want to play at home in the round of 16 but … that possibility seems to have become smaller.”
Suwon is a team that has been struggling of late with Asia being the only bright spot of what is becoming another dismal season at home. Three successive defeats in the K-League, including a painful 3-0 loss at the home of bitter rivals FC Seoul and a 2-1 defeat at home to Seongnam, preceded the Osaka disappointment and then one followed. Unless the Japanese lose in China next week and Suwon defeat Singapore Armed Forces, Suwon will be making the short trip across Gyeonggi Province.
Jeonbuk Motors is another team that is likely to finish second after conceding a last-minute goal to a Japanese team. Kashima Antlers won 2-1 in Jeonju in March and the K-League champions have been playing catch-up ever since. Both are through to the last 16 but if Jeonbuk, who won the competition in 2006, want to play at home in the next round, it has to win at the home of the Japanese champion.
“We want to avenge the defeat in Kashima,” said Jeonbuk coach Choi Kang-hee after the match and added. “I know that is going to be a difficult away game but we will use the best of what we have to get a victory. I have plans for that.”
If Jeonbuk don’t manage to get the result in Ibaraki next week then a long trip to South Australia to take on Adelaide United is on the cards. But if things go differently, a game against Pohang Steelers and a Jeolla and Gyeongsang Province match-up is a distinct possibility. All four Korean teams playing each other in the round of sixteen would be something to see.
Copyright: Soccerphile.com & John Duerden