Two-time winners Al Ittihad and 2007 runners-up Sepahan are the only two teams to have maintained a perfect record after three group matches in the 2011 AFC Champions League. A third straight victory has left the Saudi Arabia and Iran representatives on the verge of qualification for the knockout phase.
The former overwhelmed hosts Al Wahda 3-0 to cement their place at the top of Group C. The result, coupled with the goalless draw between Persepolis and Bunyodkor, saw the Saudis open up a near-unassailable seven-point lead over the chasing trio, who are now surely left competing for second.
Sepahan continued their dominant run in Group A with a 2-0 home win over Al Gharafa. Although Al Hilal saw off Al Jazira 3-1 in the other match, it is the Iranian champions that lead the section with a three-point margin over the Riyadh outfit, while the two losing sides are left on the brink of elimination with just a point each.
Also performing impressively are Qatar’s Al Sadd of Group B and Zob Ahan from Group D, who both won their respective fixtures to move up to the section summit. In the east, Tianjin Teda of Group E and Group F's FC Seoul maintained their status as group leaders despite 1-1 draws. Group G sees Jeonbuk Motors clinging to top on goal difference following defeat to Japan’s Cerezo Osaka, while Korea Republic’s Suwon Bluewings continue to lead from the front in Group H.
The big game
Esteghlal 4-2 Pakhtakor
Hawar Mohammed 12, Farhad Majidi 23, Mehdi Seyed Salehi 57, Arash Borhani 90+3; Dusan Savic 4, Sanat Shikov 90
Entering the Group B meeting with a point each from the opening two fixtures, both hosts Esteghlal and Pakhtakor were left with little option but to go for a win. Pakhtakor went in front after only four minutes courtesy of forward Dusan Savic but the hosts, roared on by their raucous home supporters, drew level eight minute later when a Hawar Mohammed free-kick was deflected home.
Esteghlal began to dominate the proceedings thereafter, with veteran striker Farhad Majidi giving them a half-time lead, before substitute Mehdi Seyed Salehi headed home on the hour-mark to make it 3-1. Sanat Shikov's last-minute strike may have briefly set the hosts’ nerves on edge, but Arash Borhani eased any concerns with a clinical finish in added time. With the win Esteghlal move level on four points with Al Nassr, 1-0 losers to Al Sadd who sit atop of the section two points clear.
Arema Indonesia 1-1 Shandong Luneng
Obina 8; Mochamad Fakhrudin 90+3
Undoubtedly optimistic of a second Group G win against struggling Arema Indonesia, Shandong got off to an expected start when Brazilian forward Obina latched onto a clearance to open the scoring after just eight minutes. After Yongky Bowo flashed an effort too high at the other end, the visitors continued to threaten with both Roda Antar and Ricardo close to doubling the lead, before Obina wasted a gilt-edged opportunity in the dying minutes. The visitors would rue their profligacy in front of the goal as Arema equalised in dramatic fashion as Fakhrudin converted a spot-kick deep into stoppage time to earn them a first point. The result saw Shandong concede second position to Cerezo Osaka, whose solitary-goal triumph over Jeonbuk Motors left them level on six points alongside their Korean rivals, but trailing on goal difference.
Shandong's draw set the tone for the Chinese contingent with their three compatriots all sharing the spoils. Tianjin Teda, despite taking a first-half lead against Melbourne Victory through Marko Zoric, conceded a Kevin Muscat goal to gift the visitors their first point. However Arie Haan's side remains top of the section, a point clear of Jeju United, who saw off Gamba Osaka 2-1 in the other group contest.
A potentially intriguing cross-continental Group F match-up between debutants Hangzhou Greentown and inaugural champions Al Ain ended in a goalless draw, leaving the Chinese hosts trailing three points behind leaders FC Seoul, who remained undefeated thanks to a 1-1 draw at Nagoya Grampus. Shanghai Shenhua, who earned their second point with a 1-1 draw at Sydney FC, find themselves struggling in arguably the trickiest group. With Suwon Bluewings topping the section with five points after their 1-1 draw with Kashima Antlers, the remaining contenders are level on two points but both Sydney and Kashima have a game in hand.
Esteghlal forward Farhad Majidi made his name in the inaugural AFC Champions League in 2003, scoring a crucial goal against Chinese heavyweights Dalian Shide in the semi-finals that saw Al Ain through to the final. Eight years later, the 33-year-old has shown that his goalscoring prowess has not deserted him. After netting the equaliser in the opening 1-1 draw against Al Sadd, the Iranian hotshot was on target again as his side came from a goal down to defeat Pakhtakor 4-2.
What they said
"It was a tough game but we had the chances to score although we didn't take them. For us it has been a difficult situation as we have had no games and haven't been able to undertake normal training. However, we have been able to work on our mental and physical strength and the team's sense of unity is good," Kashima Antlers coach Oswaldo Oliveira.
2011 AFC Champions League Matchday 3 results:
Tuesday 5 & Wednesday 6 April
Group A: Sepahan 2-0 Al Gharafa, Al Hilal 3-1 Al Jazira
Group B: Esteghlal 4-2 Pakhtakor, Al Sadd 1-0 Al Nassr
Group C: Bunyodkor 0-0 Persepolis, Al Wahda 0-3 Al Ittihad
Group D: Al Rayyan 1-3 Zob Ahan, Al Shabab 4-1 Emirates
Group E: Jeju United 2-1 Gamba Osaka, Tianjin Teda 1-1 Melbourne Victory
Group F: Hangzhou Greentown 0-0 Al Ain, Nagoya Grampus 1-1 FC Seoul
Group G: Cerezo Osaka 1-0 Jeonbuk Motors, Arema Indonesia 1-1 Shandong Luneng
Group H: Suwon Bluewings 1-1 Kashima Antlers, Sydney FC 1-1 Shanghai Shenhua