AFC Champions League.
Much debate has been had about the extent of squad rotations this year and just what that says about the attitudes of clubs towards participation in the ACL.
It's a difficult issue, and not one that can be viewed as black or white. It is very much grey.
No one will argue that squad rotation isn't required to be competitive in multiple tournaments. Given the vast travel distances, more so in East Asia, playing three games in seven or eight days, with, for example, a 30-hour return trip to Australia sandwiched in between will test any player the world over.
The issue this year is that, on paper, teams are fielding what can only be described as weaker sides in the ACL, particularly when travelling, and saving their best players for regular league matches on the weekend.
The perception is that the ACL is a clear second priority for clubs, when the AFC are trying to market the competition as the pinnacle for club football in Asia.
The rhetoric and the reality don't match up.
How to get them to match up? It's the million-dollar question. What can the AFC do to force clubs to field their strongest team? Should they force clubs? Is wielding a big stick the best way to make clubs take the ACL more seriously, or would it just lead to resentment?
Their own regulations (section 28) state that:
On entering the Competition, the Club shall automatically undertake:
f) To field their strongest team throughout the competition
Clubs have taken their rotation policy to the nth degree this season, particularly in the East. More often than not a significant number of their regular best XI have been left out of away trips, with clubs hoping their home form was enough to see them through.
That meant inconsistent performances with only two clubs in the East (Western Sydney and Kawasaki) winning more than half their games. Three clubs advanced to the Round of 16 having won only two games.
While you could argue that is a good thing, highlighting the evenness between all teams, you get the sense it's not a true reflection of the strengths of the various teams.
One club who deserve to have the book thrown at them is Guizhou Renhe for their clear contempt in their final game against Western Sydney. Not in the fact that they bought a 'B' team, given they had no chance of advancing that was no unexpected, it’s the fact they only named two substitutes and didn't bring a reserve goalkeeper. It was clear they were disrespecting not only the competition but also their opponents, who duly thumped them 5-0.
It bought in to sharp focus the rotation issue that has cast a shadow over the group stages. But what sanctions can AFC issue? A fine? Given the number of teams that are backed by wealthy owners and corporations, such a punishment may have little effect.
It's clearly a difficult issue and one that AFC need to address to ensure what we have seen this year doesn't get out of hand in future campaigns.
But while the issue dominated discussions, it’s the action on the field that really matters and with the group stages completed we can now look forward to the Round of 16.
In the east it is Pohang Steelers who are the early favourites after going through the group stage undefeated (Foolad in the West the only other team to achieve that feat). Their most impressive performance came at home against Shandong Luneng, who were challenging them for top spot at the time. More on them later.
Two goals and a man down after 25 minutes it looked grim for the 2009 champions. But for the remaining 65 minutes they played Shandong off the park, despite being a man down, and deservedly walked away from the game with a 2-2 draw. It could easily have been more. They haven't looked back since, and are on an 11-game winning streak across the ACL and K League Classic, where they are two points clear on top.
With no foreign players on their roster, they are proving that it's not all about the money and how much you can spend on foreign players. Lee Myung-ju and Kim Seung-dae are the two leading lights for the defending K League Champions.
They will face fellow Korean side Jeonbuk Hyundai in the Round of 16 in one of three 'derby' clashes, with Al Ittihad-Al Shabab (Saudi Arabia) and Al Jazira-Al Ain (UAE) the others.
One of the most disappointing teams this year had to be Shandong Luneng. After spending big in the off-season, compiling a squad many thought could challenge Guangzhou not only domestically but also in the ACL, people expected and assumed they’d be one of the two teams to advance from Group E.
They started well with a win and two draws from their first three games setting them up nicely for the final three games, two of which were at home.
Inexplicably they lost all three, suffering the ignominy of finishing last in their group. Defence was their biggest issue. While Vagner Love terrorised defences (he scored five goals in six games), it was their failure to keep them out at the other end that prevented them from advancing. Their 11 goals against was the worst record in the East, and second worst overall.
In the West the Saudi clubs look strong, particularly Al Hilal and Al Shabab, while Al Ittihad can never be discounted. And after they failed to qualify for the 2015 ACL, they'll be looking to make a statement this year.
The UAE's Al Ain, who struggled domestically this season, are always going to be a contender so long as Asamoah Gyan keeps banging in the goals - he scored seven in the group stages.
It wasn't such a good campaign for Qatari clubs, however, with only 2011 champions Al Sadd making it through to the Round of 16, and even that was in doubt until the final moments of their clash with Al Ahli (who they replaced in second).
With the AFC looking to overhaul the criteria once again, this time putting in place a system that puts significantly more emphasis on on-field performances, it’s not a great time for clubs to struggle.
Given how unpredictable the group stage has been, I won't dare make any predictions for the Round of 16, but one thing we can be sure of is entertainment and quality on the pitch. It's the one area the ACL rarely fails to deliver.
Copyright © Paul Williams and Soccerphile.com