Hard-fought victories marked the final matchday of the AFC Champions League group stage with seven of the remaining ten qualifying spots decided by wins of the slightest margins. The traditional powerhouses demonstrated why they have had a stronghold on previous editions of the by coming through in this week’s showdowns.
Former winners Jeonbuk Motors and Al Sadd, along with holders Guangzhou Evergrande progressed by narrow margins, while the likes of Bunyodkor and Al Hilal saw off tough oppositions to book their seventh consecutive qualification for the knockout phase. Korea Republic, Japan and Saudi Arabia emerged as the biggest winners with each country boasting three teams in the Round of 16. United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, showed progress on the Asian scene after seeing two of their sides through.
El Jaish 1-2 Bunyodkor
Bunyodkor from Group B rounded off their campaign with a dramatic 2-1 win at El Jaish. All the more impressive was the fashion in which they won, Sardor Rashidov sealing the Uzbeks' qualification with virtually the last kick of the game. Considering the visitors' lacklustre form in earlier matchdays having earned just two points from four outings, few gave them a chance of springing a surprise, especially after losing their first leg at home.
El Jaish only needed a point to grab the section's second qualifying spot, while Bunyodkor faced a must-win. Sergii Symonenko ignited the Uzbeks' hopes with an early strike but Mohammad Muntari drew the hosts level shortly after the interval. Just as the game looked destined for a draw, Rashidov volleyed home to set-up a mouth-watering clash with Al Hilal in the next phase. Sections winners Foolad, meanwhile, wrapped up their group stage play with a 5-1 win at Al Fateh and will face Al Sadd in the next round.
Kawasaki Frontale 3-1 Ulsan Hyundai
Group H provided two of the matchday's most enthralling clashes with Western Sydney Wanderers and Kawasaki Frontale both advancing after emphatic wins. The Australians produced the biggest win, putting five unanswered goals past an eliminated Guizhou Renhe at home to seal the top spot. However, it was Kawasaki that stole the show by seeing off 2012 winners Ulsan.
After trading exchanges in the early stages, the Japanese hosts sprung into life after half an hour with two goals within three minutes from Yu Kobayashi and Yoshito Okubo. Rafinha pulled one back for Ulsan soon after. The visitors pressed hard after the restart for an equaliser, however, Brazil defender Jeci settled the contest when he got his head on to Kengo Nakamura's inch-perfect cross. The victory pits Kawasaki against FC Seoul in the next stage, while Wanderers take on Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
The other attractions
Group A's Al Shabab maintained their place at the summit after edging hosts Al Jazira 2-1 and set up an enticing encounter between Al Ittihad in an all-Saudi affair. Al Jazira, for their part, face compatriots Al Ain who finished as Group C winners with a 1-1 home draw against Al Ittihad.
In Group D, Al Hilal and Al Sadd, both of whom entered the matchday facing a must-win situation, got the results they needed. The former was thankful for top-striker Nassir Al Shamrani, who smashed home the only goal, while the latter battled from behind to dispatch Al Ahli 2-1 with Khalfan Ibrahim and Rodrigo Tabata striking in either half.
Group E's three-way battle for the remaining berth behind Pohang Steelers ended with Cerezo Osaka progressing after defeating hosts Shandong Luneng 2-1. Vagner Love put Shandong ahead with a penalty on 19 minutes but Cerezo emerged triumphant courtesy of a two quick goals after the restart. Yoichiro Kakitani equalised before Diego Forlan scored the match-winner as the visitors avenged their first-leg 3-1 defeat. The result, coupled with Buriram United's goalless draw at Pohang Steelers saw the Japanese through to the Round of 16 where they will meet Guangzhou. Pohang, for their part, take on compatriots Jeonbuk.
FC Seoul finished as Group F winners with a deserved 2-1 home defeat of Beijing Guoan while Hiroshima downed Central Coast Mariners 1-0. Kang Seungjo and Yun Ju-tae were on target in each half as the K League side got past the desperate Chinese club. Elsewhere, two first-half goals from Elkeson saw Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou seal the top place in Group G and the result also confirmed the progression of Jeonbuk who shared spoils with Melbourne Victory in a goalless draw.
Hailed as Japan's Lionel Messi by local media, Manabu Saito struck a brace as Yokohama F. Marinos came from behind to defeat Jeonbuk by 2-1 to salvage a lifeline last week. The diminutive attacker continued to show a glimpse of his genius against Guangzhou when he pulled one back with a superb left-footed strike, although his side failed to advance.
1 - Ulsan Hyundai became the only former winners to fail to progress beyond the group stage, while China, Australia, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Iran have a team through to the Round of 16 each.
What they said
"Joining the last 16 has never been this difficult before and I expect the tournament to be tougher as it progresses. The preparations for the knockout stage should be different," said Jeonbuk Motors coach Choi Kanghee.
Matchday 6 results
22 & 23 April
Group A: Al Jazira 1-2 Al Shabab, Esteghlal 3-1 Al Al Rayyan
Group B: El Jaish 1-2 Bunyodkor, Al Fateh 1-5 Foolad
Group C: Tractor Sazi 0-1 Lekhwiya, Al Ain 1-1 Al Ittihad
Group D: Al Hilal 1-0 Sepahan, Al Sadd 2-1 Al Ahli
Group E: Shandong Luneng 1-2 Cerezo Osaka, Pohang Steelers 0-0 Buriram United
Group F: Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0 Central Coast Mariners, FC Seoul 2-1 Beijing Guoan
Group G: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 0-0 Melbourne Victory, Guangzhou Evergrande 2-1 Yokohama F. Marinos
Group H: Western Sydney Wanderers 5-0 Guizhou Renhe, Kawasaki Frontale 3-1 Ulsan Hyundai