The opening to the 2015 AFC Champions League group-stage saw a statement of intent from China PR with all four representatives boasting perfect records after the opening matchday. Among them were ambitious 2013 winners Guangzhou Evergrande who provided Fabio Cannavaro with a win on his continental debut. So too, some of the Asia’s biggest names got off to winning starts including last year’s finalists Western Sydney Wanderers and Al Hilal.
Kashima Antlers 1-3 Western Sydney Wanderers
Rarely, if ever, in the history of the competition has a club opened their title-defence in such poor form as Western Sydney Wanderers. The A-League outfit have won just once in 17 domestic league and cup matches dating back to last April, yet somehow they managed to overcome the J-League’s most successful club in their own backyard. The Wanderers seemed set for a hard-won point only to then score with four minutes remaining, with an added-time sealer securing a 3-1 win. As was the case last year, it seems the Wanderers reserve their best form for Asia. In the other Group H match, a lone strike from record-signing Ricardo Goulart gave Guangzhou Evergrande an important three points against visiting FC Seoul.
Buriram United 2-1 Seongnam FC
It is getting harder and harder to describe any result by Thailand’s Buriram United as a surprise. Two years ago they were the fairytale story of the campaign with a run to the quarter-finals, while last year they fell agonisingly short of passage to the knockout stage. The latest scalp claimed by the Thai champions was achieved thanks to two first-half goals in as many minutes which proved enough to see off two-time Asian champions Seongnam FC. The other Group F result saw debutants Guangzhou R&F continue their fine form from the group stage with a 2-0 away win at 2008 champs Gamba Osaka.
The other attractions
Group A opened with a solid 3-0 win for Iran’s Persepolis over Michael Laudrup’s Lekhwiya of Qatar, in the Tehran giants’ first continental match for three years. There was a stalemate in the other fixture as Saudi club Al Nassr were held 1-1 at home by Bunyodkor.
Fellow Uzbeks Pakhtakor faired even better in their Group B opener defeating Naft Tehran 2-1 with a late Igor Sergeev winner. 2014 semi-finalists Al Ain, missing the creative talents of the absent Omar Abdulrahman, were unable to break down visiting Saudi side Al Shabab and had to settle for a scoreless stalemate.
Group C has 2014 runners-up Al Hilal on top after a 3-1 win over Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh. 2011 champs Al Sadd of Qatar collected a hard-fought scoreless draw in Iran against Foolad.
Nasaf ensured it would be a good opening matchday for Uzbekistan representatives as they moved top of Group D with a 2-1 comeback win over Tractor Sazi. There were goals aplenty in Dubai as United Arab Emirates champions Al Ahli equalised three times for a 3-3 draw against their Saudi namesake. Ismail al-Hamadi struck twice for the Emirati side after the Saudis had gone ahead three times.
China’s Shandong Luneng denied Vietnamese outsiders Binh Duong a dream start in Group E with the Chinese side forced to come from behind, before eventually relying on a winner ten minutes from time by two-goal hero Yang Xu. There was far less drama in Korea Republic as local champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were held to a scoreless draw by Kashiwa Reysol.
Finally, to Group G where ten-man Beijing Guoan needed an unlikely injury-time winner against Brisbane Roar to make it a perfect start for Chinese Super League sides. Suwon Bluewings required late intervention from Brazilian forward Leo to secure all three points in a 2-1 comeback win over Urawa Red Diamonds.
Western Sydney Wanderers forward Mark Bridge has a habit of delivering on the big stage and he did so again with perfect timing scoring one and providing two assists as under-siege holders somehow found a way to win 3-1 at Kashima Antlers.
9 - Goals were in short supply across many of the groups with only Group D enlivening matters with nine goals in the two games, highlighted by the six-goal thriller between the UAE and Saudi clubs with the same name, Al Ahli.
“My team has done a good job, though I expected more. I hope they can do better.” New Guangzhou Evergrande coach Fabio Cannavaro