Once again, it was underlined that no games are easy in the AFC Champions League when only three of the 26 teams booked an early passage to the last eight in the penultimate round of group stage games.
Of the successful trio, Kawasaki Frontale made a breakthrough by becoming the first ever Japanese side to reach the knockout stage since the inception of the competition in 2003, having rounded off their campaign with a resounding victory over Indonesian outfit Arema Malang . Boosted by the success, they will now strive to realise their pre-tournament goal: becoming continental champions and consequently qualifying for the FIFA World Club Cup Japan 2007 , where they would play in front of their adoring supporters in Japan.
Joining Frontale in the last eight are United Arab Emirates representatives Al Wahda, who built up an unassailable group lead ahead of their final game thanks to their 3-0 win over Qatari side Al Yayyan.
In the three-team Group B, Al Hilal emerged victorious despite being held to a goalless draw at Al Kuwait, the point proving sufficient to send them through.
While Kawasaki Frontale will enter their final group game in comfort, Japanese league and cup double winners Urawa Reds are still playing for a coveted place in the last eight. They currently top Group E, although their lead over Australians Sydney FC by only a single point.
In contrast, it was all but a one-way traffic for Frontale, who won four of their five games, their only draw coming against Bangkok University in the second outing. Frontale entered their fifth match with a six-point lead, which meant all that they needed against Arema Malang was a point. Playing inside their own Todoroki Stadium, they did not disappoint, Kengo Nakamura scoring in each half before Taku Harada sealed the victory with a left-footed shot ten minutes from time.
"We've been able to get through the first round and I'd like to thank all that were involved with the tournament for their assistance," a satisfied Frontale coach Takashi Sekizuka said. "I know we still have some areas to improve on but I'm grateful to the players as they managed a performance in every match, even when we've had tough fixtures."
Slip-up for Shandong
With the three qualified teams joining the defending champions Jeonbuk Motors in the last eight, Shandong Luneng dropped their first points of the competition, which prevented them achieving an early progression to the quarter-finals. The only team to maintain a perfect record after four matches, the Chinese league and cup double winners needed a win against Adelaide United to go through and playing at the intimidating Jinan Stadium, they looked likely to get their job done with ease. However, the resilient Australians claimed a 2-2 draw on away turf.
The results, coupled with Seongnam Chunma's 2-1 victory over Dong Tam Long, set up a tense but enthralling decider with the Korean Republic giants, with Shandong needing at least a point to go through.
Elsewhere, Al Karama, the runners-up in the previous edition of the Champions League, came from behind to draw against Al Sadd 1-1 and keep their hopes alive. Two points short of group leaders Neftchi, their last match against the Uzbekistanis is a must-win affair.
Group D remains the most competitive with Sepahan of Iran and Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia level on ten points before their all-important meeting in a fortnight's time, the former playing host to their rivals at the Foolad Shahr Stadium, Esfahan.
Matchday 5 results:
Al Wahda (UAE) 3-0 Al Rayyan (QAT)
Al Zawra'a(IRQ) 3-2 Al Arabi (KUW)
Al Kuwait(KUW) 0-0 Al Hilal (KSA)
Al Sadd(QAT) 1-1 Al Karama (SYR)
Neftchi(UZB) 1-1 (IRQ)
Al Ittihad(SYR) 0-5 Sepahan (IRN)
Al Shabab(KSA) 2-0 Al Ain (UAE)
Sydney FC(AUS) 0-0 Shanghai Shenhua (CHN)
Persik Kediri(IDN) 3-3 Urawa Reds (JPN)
Kawasaki Frontale(JPN) 3-0 Arema Malang (IDN)
Chunnam Dragons(KOR) 3-2 Bangkok University (THA)
Dong Tam Long An (VIE) 1-2 Seongnam Chunma( KOR)
Shandong Luneng(CHN) 2-2 Adelaide United (AUS)