Matchday 4 of this year's AFC Champions League witnessed all seven group leaders move a giant step closer to the quarter-finals, with two edging to within a point of booking their places. At the same time, with two rounds of matches still to play, 12 strugglers were essentially dumped out of Asia's elite club competition.
Among the biggest winners were Syrian side Al Karama, who continued their undefeated run with a 1-0 home win over Qatari giants Al Sadd, Aattef Jenniat scoring the solitary goal 12 minutes from time. The win moved Mohamad Kwid's charges five points clear of second-placed Al Wahda, who dispatched Saudi Arabian side Al Ahli 2-1. The two winning teams will now meet in the penultimate match in a fortnight's time, with Al Karama only requiring a point to seal their place in last eight.
Yet despite the win, Kwid graciously admitted that, but for some luck and a resolute defensive display, his players could easily have found themselves on the losing side. "The game was one of the toughest that we have played in the competition," said the Syrian tactician, who steered Al Karama to the runners-up spot in their debut continental campaign in 2005. "Our rivals created better and more chances but fortunately our defenders had a good game."
Joining Al Karama in leading from the front are Japanese heavyweights Gamba Osaka, who saw off Melbourne Victory 2-0 with in-form striker Masato Yamazaki scoring in either half. The win, which condemned the Australian outfit to a premature exit, provided Osaka with a five-point lead over their nearest rivals, Chonburi of Thailand, who shared four goals with Korea Republic's Chunnam Dragons.
With his side needing just a point against Chonburi in their next game on 7 May to establish an unassailable lead, Osaka manager Akira Nishino was a happy man. He said: "We are playing in a tough group but we have played well so far and gained satisfying results."
While Melbourne have struggled on the continental stage, their fellow Australians Adelaide United appear to be flourishing, with a comfortable 4-1 home win over Binh Duong of Vietnam sufficient to see them move two points clear of China's Changchun Yatai. The Chinese hopefuls were held to a 2-2 draw by Pohang Steelers but with the top two set to meet in the final match on 21 May, the race to top Group E looks sure to go down to the wire.
Defeat acceptable for Kashima
In Beijing, meanwhile, a highly intense match ended with hosts Guoan ending Kashima Antlers' impressive winning streak with a 1-0 victory, Brazilian striker Tiago scoring the only goal. The result pulled Guoan level with Kashima on nine points, but the the Japanese double-winners' massively superior goal difference leaves them as strong favourites to progress.
"Our hosts deserved the win but the result is acceptable for us," said Kashima coach Oswaldo de Oliveira. "We still have the advantage of goal difference, so we have a good chance."
In Group A, Iranian giants Sepahan emerged with a 1-0 win over two-time winners Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, whose Syrian namesakes were on the receiving end of an identical defeat to tournament debutants Kuruvchi FC. The result leaves the surprise packages from Uzbekistan sitting atop the section with nine points. For Sepahan, despite losing their opening two matches, the win over the Saudi giants, their second victory in succession, keeps their hopes very much alive.
Sepahan coach Jorvan Vieira, who guided Iraq to glory at last year's AFC Asian Cup, was glad to see his motivational skills had once again worked a treat. "You have all seen how strong a team Al Ittihad are," said the Brazilian. "But I was confident of getting a good result after I had talked to the players before the match."
Elsewhere, the competition's other Iranian side, Saipa, failed to extend their three-point cushion over second-placed Al Quwa Al Jawiya as they were held to 1-1 draw by the visiting Iraqi club. Nevertheless, a home win over Kuwait SC in their next fixture will be enough to see Ali Daei's side through to the last eight.
Group D, meanwhile, has been reduced to a two-horse race between leaders Al Qadsia of Kuwait and Uzbekistani champions Pakhtakor, who are trailing behind by three points. Pakhtakor now face a must-win encounter against the pace-setters in the next game, knowing that defeat will send their rivals through to the quarter-finals with a game to spare.
2008 AFC Champions League Matchday 4 fixtures
Wednesday 23 April
Group A: Kuruvchi FC (Uzbekistan) 1-0 Al Ittihad (Syria); Al Ittihad FC (Saudi Arabia) 0-1 Sepahan (Iran)
Group B: Saipa (Iran) 1-1 Al Quwa Al Jawiya (Iraq); Kuwait SC (Kuwait) 2-1 Al Wasl (UAE)
Group C: Al Wahda (UAE) 2-1 Al Ahli (Saudi Arabia); Al Karama (Syria) 1-0 Al Sadd (Qatar)
Group D: Al Gharafa (Qatar) 0-1 Al Qadsia (Kuwait); Arbil (Iraq) 1-5 Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan)
Group E: Adelaide United (Australia) 4-1 Binh Duong (Vietnam); Pohang Steelers (Korea Republic) 2-2 Changchun Yatai (China)
Group F: Beijing Guoan (China) 1-0 Kashima Antlers (Japan); Nam Dinh (Vietnam) 2-2 Krung Thai Bank (Thailand)
Group G: Chonburi (Thailand) 2-2 Chunnam Dragons (Korea Republic); Gamba Osaka (Japan) 2-0 Melbourne Victory (Australia)