Last-eight places beckon as the AFC Champions League Round of 16 takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday with, notably, three pairs of domestic rivals facing off. Former champions Jeonbuk Motors entertain Pohang Steelers in an all-Korean affair, while Saudi fans will fix their attention on the Al Ittihad versus Al Shabab clash. Elsewhere, inaugural winners Al Ain take on compatriots Al Jazira.
Jeonbuk Motors-Pohang Steelers
It goes without saying that the encounter at Jeonju's World Cup Stadium represents the class of Asia, with both hosts Jeonbuk and Pohang both being former winners. Choi Kanghee's side became the first K League team to win the continental title when they prevailed in the 2006 edition and Hwang Sunhong's visitors ruled Asia three years later. Both sides, however, don't enter the match in winning form. Pohang maintain their place at the summit despite losing 3-1 at Seongnam Chunma, while Jeonbuk trail by two points after losing 1-0 at Suwon Bluewings.
Jeonbuk lead in head-to-head competition, having won 14 and drawn 10 of their 34 meetings since 2003. But they will be wary of their opponents' splendid form this season as Pohang emerged one of only two teams with an undefeated record in Asian competition alongside Foolad. Besides, Hwang's outfits ran out 3-1 victors in their last match-up with top-striker Kim Seungdae scoring the winner back in March. All the more interesting is the fact that it is a tactical clash between a pair of former national team team-mates with both the managers representing Korea Republic at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™.
The other attractions
Al Ittihad will look to their unrivalled Asian record when they take on domestic rivals Al Shabab, having won the continental title back-to-back in 2004 and 2005. Moreover, the Jeddah giants emerged victorious in the same stage in 2009 when they edged Al Shabab 2-1. However, they will understate the opposition at their peril. Al Shabab emerged the team with the most points after winning their group with five wins. On the domestic scene, they held Al Ittihad 1-1 last December despite losing the first leg 4-1.
If their 2-2 draw against Al Ain last Thursday is anything to go by, it looks set that Al Jazira head into the Asian meeting confident of going one better this time around. Asamoah Gyan was twice on target to give Al Ain a 2-0 first-half lead in the domestic meeting, but two late goals from Felipe Caicedo and Ali Mabkhot saw Al Jazira seal a point. On the surface, Al Ain are overwhelming favourites on the Asian scene, having won the inaugural edition in 2003 and reaching the final two years later. Al Jazira, for their part, progressed beyond the group phase only once when they made it in 2012. Despite this, though, Al Jazira have maintained similarly eye-catching form during this campaign, progressing from their group at the expense of Iran heavyweights Esteghlal.
Having recently won their second Iranian league title, Foolad takes on Al Sadd seeking to translate their domestic form to the Asian stage. With top-scorer Chimba spearheading the attacking-line, Foolad won their group unchallenged. Al Sadd, however, floundered in the early stages only to secure a place in the knockout stage with a 2-1 defeat of Al Ahli in the closing match. The nine-time Asian competitors can take heart from their success in 2011 when they went all the way, including dispatching Iranian giants Sepahan 4-2 on aggregate en route to the title.
Having lost 3-0 in the same stage in 2010, Bunyodkor enter the re-meeting with Al Hilal eyeing revenge. Despite their lacklustre group form, the Uzbek giants boast a strong home record against Saudi clubs in the Champions League having won three out of four meetings. A 3-0 home win against Nawbahor Namangan in the local league came as a timely boost for the Tashkent side. Al Hilal can, meanwhile, count on the goal-scoring form of striking-ace Nasser Al Shamrani who has netted six times as they finished group-winners.
Cerezo Osaka will look to their home form in the Champions League as they seek to pull off a surprise against defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande. The Japanese enter the match on the back of a 2-1 victory at Nagoya Grampus Eight, with top-scorer Yoichirio Kakitani and Diego Forlan on target. Despite this, Marcello Lippi's visitors have maintained their status as the team to beat, including defeating Yokohama F. Marinos 2-1 in the group concluder. The Chinese have impressed through their superior firepower, evidenced by their recent 5-0 demolition of Shanghai SIPG.
After recovering from early losses to seal qualification with three consecutive wins, Kawasaki Frontale will look to their recently-found form against last year's runners-up FC Seoul. The Japanese hosts have gone three matches undefeated in the local league, including seeing off Ventforet Kofu 2-0 on Saturday. Despite disappointing in the domestic league, with a recent 1-0 loss at Incheon United sinking them to second from bottom, FC Seoul can draw inspiration from their contrasting Asian form.
Elsewhere, Western Sydney Wanderers travel to Sanfrecce Hiroshima keen to make up for the pain of a near-miss in the A-League Grand Final. Tony Popovic's side scored first but came out 2-1 losers against Brisbane Roar after extra time on Sunday. The Wanderers carved out four wins including a 1-0 defeat of Kawasaki in winning the group.
Player to watch
With compatriot Muriqui struggling to rediscover his goal-scoring form, Elkeson has proved the key man with Guangzhou on both the domestic and Asian front. The dynamic attacker completed a brace as they saw off Yokohama to progress, before recording a hat-trick as they recently trounced Shanghai SIPG.
3 - Three countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Japan and Korea Republic, boast three sides in the knockout stage each while three of the eight showdowns are played between the domestic rivals.
What they said
"The most important thing is that we didn’t lose and this is important for us to continue with the same rhythm. It doesn’t matter who our opponents will be in the Round of 16 as we have a lot of confidence in our players," Al Ittihad coach Khalid Al Koroni
6 & 7 May
Al Ittihad-Al Shabab
Al Jazira-Al Ain
Jeonbuk Motors-Pohang Steelers
Cerezo Osaka-Guangzhou Evergrande
Kawasaki Frontale-FC Seoul
Sanfrecce Hiroshima-Western Sydney Wanderers