The last 16 is already in sight for the pace-setters in Groups D, E, F, G and H ahead of Matchday 4 of the 2010 AFC Champions League tomorrow and Wednesday.
Standing out among these section leaders are Group E's Seongnam Ilhwa, who can advance with their fourth straight win against Beijing Guoan regardless of other results. Elsewhere, the top two sides in Group F and Group H also know that the knockout phase is just another win away, while Suwon Bluewings can also qualify from Group G should they win and other result go their way.
The picture is a lot less clear-cut in the continent’s west, however, with no teams expected to qualify from Group A, B, C and Al Hilal and Al Sadd needing away victories to progress from Group D.
Beijing Guoan (CHN)-Seongnam Ilhwa (KOR)
After losing out to South Korean opponents en masse a week ago, the four Chinese participants enter the second of their back-to-back meetings eager to settle a score and put their campaigns back on track with wins. Leading the charge to take revenge are C-League champions Beijing Guoan, who opened their domestic title defence brightly with a 2-0 win over Nanchang Bayi on Saturday in which Australia striker Joel Griffiths was on target. The capital side will be hopeful that their home support and the goalscoring prowess of in-form Griffiths will inspire them to topple Seongnam. However, the loss of goalkeeper Yang Zhi and playmaker Xu Liang due to suspension may force coach Hong Yuanshuo to adopt a cautious approach.
Seongnam, on the other hand, are likely to go on the attack in their hunt for a win that would take them through to the last 16. The only question mark hanging over the Koreans is whether the exertions of playing three competitive games in the space of a week, including two drawn K-League fixtures, will take its toll. Nonetheless, Shin Tae-Yong’s charges remain one of most formidable attacking forces on the continent, and striker Dzenan Radoncic has been on target in each of their three recent outings.
The other headliners
With Adelaide United and Pohang Steelers on verge of qualifying from Group H, Shandong Luneng know that only an emphatic home win will be enough to revive their flagging hopes. However, the struggling Chinese outfit’s cause is not helped by the suspension of midfield Cui Peng. Defending champions Pohan, for their part, are boosted by the return of captain Hwang Jae-Won from suspension.
Also teetering on the brink of elimination are Group F’s Changchun Yatai, who travel to Jeonbuk Motors aiming for a vital second win. The visitors, who were held to a goalless draw by Liaoning in Saturday’s C-League curtain-raiser, will have fatigue to contend with, which doesn’t bode well against a home side who will be feeling fresh having enjoyed a bye in the weekend’s K-League fixtures.
In Group G, both Suwon Bluewings and Gamba Osaka dropped points in their domestic games over the weekend, with the former losing 2-1 to Gyeongnam FC. However, with their attention now refocused on the continental campaign, Bluewings coach Cha Bum-Kun will be aiming to mastermind a second victory over Henan Jianye, who beat Chongqing 2-0 in their C-League opener at the weekend.
A top-of-the-table contest takes centre stage in Group A, where Qatar’s Al Gharafa entertain Esteghlal looking to avenge their unexpected 3-0 loss a week ago. The same can be said of Group B, where hosts Bunyodkor have a score to settle against Zob Ahan, having lost their last meeting by an identical scoreline. Rivaldo’s absence played a telling contribution in the Uzbek champions’ first-leg loss, and with the Brazilian star back in action, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is confident that his side will reaffirm their status as one of the tournament favourites.
Group C remains wide open, meanwhile, with all four teams still in contention. Uzbek international Alexander Geynrikh’s scoring form will be crucial if Pakhtakor’s are to cement their place at the top with victory away to Sepahan, but the runaway Iranian league leaders can look to their own star striker, Iraqi hitman Emad Mohammed, as they search for a first win.
Player to watch
With four goals in as many games, including a brace against Al Gharafa, Farhad Majidi is Esteghlal’s leading marksman. Having played a key role in helping Al Ain win the inaugural Champions League title in 2003, the 32-year-old is rediscovering his old form and once again posing a major threat to the continent’s best.
What they said
"We rested a couple of key players in our domestic match so the team are fully prepared to mount a serious challenge against Pohang. I hope we will play with more resolve as we have nothing to lose."
Shandong Luneng head coach Branko Ivankovic
2010 AFC Champions League Matchday 4 fixtures
Group A: Al Gharafa (QAT)-Esteghlal (IRN); Al Jazira (UAE)-Al Ahli (KSA) Group B: Al Ittihad (KSA)-Al Wahda (UAE); Bunyodkor (UZB)-Zob Ahan (IRN) Group C: Sepahan (IRN)-Pakhtakor (UZB); Al Shabab (KSA)-Al Ain (UAE) Group D: Al Ahli (UAE)-Al Hilal (KSA); Mes Kerman (Iran)-Al Sadd (QAT) Group E: Beijing Guoan (CHN)- Seongnam Ilhwa (KOR); Melbourne Victory (AUS)-Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)
Group F: Jeonbuk Motors (KOR)-Changchun Yatai (CHN); Persipura Jayapura (IDN)-Kashima Antlers (JPN)
Group G: Gamba Osaka (JPN)-Armed Forces (SIN); Suwon Bluewings (KOR)-Henan Jianye (CHN)
Group H: Shandong Luneng (CHN)-Pohang Steelers (KOR); Sanfrecce Hiroshima (JPN)-Adelaide United (AUS)