The AFC Champions League group stage will reach its halfway stage this week, with the outcome of some intriguing fixtures sure to have a say on which teams achieve two-two finishes and consequently qualify for the last 16.
Victory for any of the five teams boasting 100 per cent records - namely Al Ittihad, FC Seoul, Jeonbuk Motors, Sepahan and Tianjin Teda - would make their presence in the knockout phase almost certain, while a series of sides will be fighting to throw themselves a lifeline. FIFA.com previews the upcoming action, which includes four Korea Republic-versus-Japan matches.
Suwon Bluewings-Kashima Antlers
Suwon Bluewings may have won a second successive Asian title in 2002, but they have underperformed since the inception of the AFC Champions League the following year. The South Koreans’ best campaign was in 2010, when they reached the quarter-finals, but coach coach Yoon Sung-Hyo is determined to surpass that this campaign. He signed Korea Republic goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong and Uzbek striker Alexander Geynrikh in pre-season, and Suwon have made a promising start to 2011: they have taken four points from two games in Group H, and beat Ulsan Horangi 2-1 on Saturday to climb third in the K-League.
Next up for the Bluewings is the visit of Kashima Antlers. The record seven-time J.League champions have a formidable team, with Masahiko Inoha and Daiki Iwamasa shoring things up in defence, Mitsuo Ogasawara bossing the midfield and classy Brazilian Igor leading the line. Oswaldo de Oliveira's troops drew their opener 0-0 at Shanghai Shenhua, so victory at the Blue Bird would take them level on points with their hosts, who have played a game more.
The other attractions
FC Seoul and Jeonbuk Motors both face stern tests in Japan. The capital outfit are away to a Nagoya Grampus side spearheaded by Josh Kennedy and looking to rebound from defeat at Hangzhou Greentown in their solitary Group F game, while the Group G pacesetters are at Cerezo Osaka. Shandong Luneng, level on three points with Cerezo, will host bottom side Arema.
Al Ittihad will also have it tough in their quest to protect a perfect record. The Saudi giants take on their Group C runners-up Al Wahda, who would move to within a point of their guests with a home victory. With their 3-2 win over Peykan at the weekend sending them five points clear at the Iranian Pro League summit, Sepahan will strive to consolidate pole position in Group A with victory at home to Qatari outfit Al Gharafa, who have taken just one point from their two outings.
Tianjin Teda, who beat Shenzhen Ruby 1-0 in their C-League opener on Friday, will look to move on to nine points against visiting Group E tailenders Melbourne Victory. Jeju United and Gamba Osaka, both on three points, will meet in the section’s other game.
Uzbekistan’s two remaining representatives have both taken just a point from their two games, and know they must address their poor form with victory. Pakhtakor were held at home by Nasaf on domestic duty on Saturday and will now travel to fellow Group B strugglers Esteghlal, while their compatriots Bunyodkor host Persepolis, who are bottom of Group C.
Player to watch
Having figured significantly for FC Seoul last season, with his 12 goals helping the capital-side to their fourth league title, Montenegrin striker Dejan Damjanovic continued his free-scoring form into this season. He was on target in their 3-0 win over Hangzhou Greentown two weeks ago before striking a brace as his side defeated Jeonbuk Motors 3-1 this weekend.
What they said
"If we get a win against Shanghai, it will be absolutely phenomenal for our chances of qualifying for the next round, because we've got them at home in two weeks. Having said that, even a draw will put us in a decent position. Either a draw or a win would be fantastic," Melbourne Victory caretaker coach Mehmet Durakovic
Matchday 3 fixtures
Tuesday & Wednesday
Group A: Sepahan-Al Gharafa, Al Hilal-Al Jazira
Group B: Esteghlal-Pakhtakor, Al Sadd-Al Nassr
Group C: Bunyodkor-Persepolis, Al Wahda-Al Ittihad
Group D: Al Rayyan-Zob Ahan, Al Shabab-Emirates
Group E: Jeju United-Gamba Osaka, Tianjin Teda-Melbourne Victory
Group F: Hangzhou Greentown-Al Ain, Nagoya Grampus-FC Seoul
Group G: Cerezo Osaka-Jeonbuk Motors, Arema Indonesia-Shandong Luneng
Group H: Suwon Bluewings-Kashima Antlers, Sydney FC-Shanghai Shenhua