The 2010 AFC Champions League reaches its midway point this week, with the sides pitted against each other on Matchday 3 set for the first of two back-to-back meetings.
There are three top-of-the-table contests in Groups A, B and E, while pace-setters in the other five groups face up to their sections’ bottom sides.
Adding extra spice to the Matchday 3 are ten ‘derbies’ between near neighbours. In West Asia, four Saudi representatives square off with opponents from United Arab Emirates, while Uzbeks Bunyodkor and Pakhtakor do battle with Zob Ahan and Sepahan of Iran. In the continent’s east, meanwhile, four Chinese sides compete against rivals from Korea Republic.
Pohang Steelers (KOR)-Shandong Luneng (CHN)
Despite losing their Group A opener to Adelaide United, defending champions Pohang bounced back with a 2-1 win over Hiroshima a fortnight ago to put their campaign back on track. They also welcome Shandong on the back of a morale-boosting 4-0 win over Gangwan FC 4-0 on Saturday in which new Brazilian import Mota grabbed a hat-trick. The South Koreans may, however, have to make do without suspended defender Hwang Jae-Won, although the return of former Fullham striker Seol Ki-Hyun provides coach Waldemar Lemos with an additional attacking option.
For their part, Shandong travel to Pohang aiming to atone for a 2-0 home defeat to high-flying Adelaide. Although Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic has shown unwavering confidence in his 4-3-1-2 formation, he may be forced to modify his tactical approach due to the loss of defender Jiao Zhe, who recently injured his heel in training.
The other headliners
Two of the seven teams still preserving a perfect record, Group E joint-leaders Seongnam Ilhwa and Beijing Guoan, face off in Korea Republic. The hosts had looked unstoppable both domestically and on the continental front but their length winning streak was brought to end this weekend in a draw with Jeonbuk Motors. Beijing, meanwhile, will be hoping for better luck against South Korean opposition this time, having lost twice lost to Ulsan Hyundai last season. In the section’s other match, pointless Kawasaki Frontale and Melbourne Victory know that victory is all but essential if they are to preserve any hopes of qualifying.
Group F sees 2006 champions Jeonbuk Motors travel to Changchun Yatai. The South Koreans will start as strong favourites, but it is the Chinese who raised quite a few eyebrows by trouncing Persipura Jayapura 9-0 in their last fixture. Changchun have also been boosted by the return of playmaker Du Zhenyu, while Jeonbuk are without the services of the suspended Jung Hong. Elsewhere, runaway leaders Kashima Antlers are expected to make light work of Persipura despite the loss of Koji Nakata.
Another Chinese-Korean affairs is served up in Group G, where leaders Suwon Bluewings travel to face Henan Jianye. Suwon’s Brazilian striker Juninho is in prolific form after scoring twice to firing his side to a 2-1 win against Incheon on Saturday but the visitors will be wary of these resilient Chinese debutants, who held Gamba Osaka to a surprise 1-1 draw in their last outing. Gamba themselves, champions in 2008, face a desperate search for their first win against Singapore Armed Forces.
High-flying Al Hilal lead the Saudi charge against UAE with a home match against pointless Al Ahli in Group D. While Al Hilal are hotly-tipped favourites with captain Yasser Al Qahtani back to his best form, it is the section’s other game that looks more evenly-matched, with Al Sadd and Mes Kerman competing for the second place.
Another Saudi outfit, Al Ittihad, face a must-win against Al Wadha in Group B after picking up just a solitary point from their first two games. In the section’s other match, front-runners Bunyodkor will again look to their Brazilian duo of Rivaldo and Denilson for inspiration against Iranian hosts Zob Ahan.
After winning their third Qatari league title following a 4-1 defeat of Al Sadd this weekend, Group A leaders Al Gharafa will be confident of continuing their perfect run against Iran’s Esteghlal. Group C looks to be the most open, meanwhile, with only three points separating leaders Al Shabab and bottom side Al Ain ahead of these sides doing battle
Player to watch
Back from a length injury-enforced absence, Younes Mahmoud has not taken long to rediscover his goalscoring form with Al Gharafa. After opening the scoring in his side’s opening win against Al Jazira, the Iraqi hitman was twice on target in their 4-1 victory over Al Sadd. Can he continue this fine run?
What they said
"We know what our Korean opponents are and we are also clear about what we are capable of. Regardless of our rivals and the gameplan we employ, our goal remains the same: to gain maximum points." Beijing Guoan head coach Hong Yuanshuo
2010 AFC Champions League Matchday 3 fixtures
Group A: Esteghlal (IRN)- Al Gharafa (QAT);Al Ahli (KSA)- Al Jazira (UAE)
Group B: Al Wahda (UAE)-Al Ittihad (KSA); Zob Ahan (IRN)-Bunyodkor (UZB)
Group C: Pakhtakor (UZB)-Sepahan (IRN); Al Ain (UAE)-Al Shabab (KSA)
Group D: Al Hilal (KSA)-Al Ahli (UAE); Al Sadd (QAT)-Mes Kerman (IRN)
Group E: Seongnam Ilhwa (KOR)-Beijing Guoan (CHN); Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)-Melbourne Victory (AUS)
Group F: Changchun Yatai (CHN)-Jeonbuk Motors (KOR); Kashima Antlers (JPN)-Persipura Jayapura (IDN)
Group G: Armed Forces (SIN)-Gamba Osaka (JPN); Henan Jianye(CHN)-Suwon Bluewings(KOR)
Group H: Pohang Steelers (KOR)-Shandong Luneng (CHN); Adelaide United (AUS)-Sanfrecce Hiroshima (JPN)