The 2010 AFC Champions League group stage reaches its denouement this week with ten teams battling for the remaining five places in the round of 16. The picture in the east is relatively clear with only one spot remaining to be fillled. Beijing Guoan entertains Kawasaki Frontale in the knowledge that a draw at home is enough to take them through from Group E.
The situation is much less clear in the west where four spots remain to be decided, with two former finalists among the group. Two-time winners Al Ittihad of Group B, can seal their progression with a win at the already-qualified Zob Ahan, while 2007 runners-up Sepahan need just a point against the eliminated Al Ain to secure their place in Group C’s top two.
Beijing Guoan - Kawasaki Frontale
Having failed to progress beyond the group stage over the past two years, Beijing face Kawasaki, who are themselves aiming to make history by reaching the knockout phase for the first time. With fellow C-league participants Shandong Luneng, Changchun Yatai and Henan Jianye already out, the Chinese champions have the added pressure of being the nation’s last hope. In order to prepare for the continental decider, coach Hong Yuanshuo rested several first-choice players in Friday’s 1-1 draw with Henan in the domestic competition.
Leading Kawasaki by a point, Beijing requires just a draw at home to advance while the Japanese face a must-win scenario. Despite the uphill task, coach Tsutomu Takahata’s outfit will be buoyed by their recent brilliant form which has seen them pull off a 3-0 home win over Seongnam Ilhwa a fortnight ago, before routing Vissel Kobe in Saturday’s J.League fixture by an identical scoreline. The visitors, however, have to make do without ace-striker Jong Tae-Se while the hosts will be missing the services of suspended Darko Matic.
The other headliners
Al Ittihad and Bunyodkor are left contending for Group B’s remaining place, however it is the second-placed Saudis who have destiny in their own hands with a win against Zob Ahan enough to propel them through. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Bunyodkor, for their part, must defeat Al Wahda and hope Ittihad slip up if they are to progress. The Uzbeks’ worries, are not helped by their lacklustre form recently, drawing against Qyzylqum Zarafshon 1-1 in Saturday’s Oliy Liga outing.
The race for Group D’s second spot looks well poised with three teams still very much in the hunt. It is a straightforward task for the second-placed Al Sadd, who can maintain their position behind Al Hilal with a home win over Al Ahli. However, any slip up is likely to benefit Mes Kerman, who lost 2-1 recently to Saipa in the Iranian Pro-League competition. Even bottom side Al Ahli have a sliver of hope but need to win handsomely over Al Sadd and rely on Al Hilal defeating the Iranians.
Group C remains delicately balanced with a solitary point separating the three contenders. Leaders Pakhtakor travel to Al Shabab and can ensure qualification with either a win or a draw. Even a defeat could see them through should Sepahan lose to Al Ain.
For second-placed Iranians Sepahan, a single point in the closing game could stamp their ticket into the next phase. A recent 2-0 triumph over Rah Ahan put them within a point of winning their second Iranian league title with three rounds to spare and the Esfahan-based outfits must now have hopes of a domestic and Asian double.
Player to watch
Kengo Nakamura was sidelined in their first-leg meeting with Beijing through injury and his influence was sorely missed with Kawasaki losing 3-1 at home. The Japan playmaker has excelled since his return two weeks ago, playing a key role in wins against Seongnam and Kobe.
What they said
"We had suffered in the early stages but we have since learnt from the defeats. We must maintain our momentum and get the three points against Beijing Guoan to qualify for the round of 16." Kawasaki Frontale coach Tsutomu Takahata
2010 AFC Champions League Matchday 6 fixtures
Group A: Al Ahli (KSA)-Al Gharafa (QAT); Al Jazira (UAE)-Esteghlal (IRN)
Group B: Zob Ahan (IRN)-Al Ittihad; Bunyodkor (UZB)-Al Wahda (UAE)
Group C: Al Ain (UAE)-Sepahan (IRN); Al Shabab (KSA)-Pakhtakor (UZB)
Group D: Al Sadd (QAT)-Al Ahli (UAE); Mes Kerman (IRN)-Al Hilal (KSA)
Group E: Seongnam Ilhwa (KOR)-Melbourne Victory (AUS); Beijing Guoan (CHN)-Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)
Group F: Kashima Antlers (JPN)-Jeonbuk Motors (KOR); Persipura Jayapura (IDN)-Changchun Yatai (CHN)
Group G: Henan Jianye (CHN)-Gamba Osaka (JPN); Suwon Bluewings (KOR)-Armed Forces (SIN)
Group H: Adelaide United (AUS)-Shandong Luneng (CHN); Sanfrecce Hiroshima (JPN)-Pohang Steelers (KOR)