Frontrunners eye early qualification

A host of teams are expected to make it through to the knockout phase of the AFC Champions League with two rounds to spare this week. Topping the list are runaway Group C leaders Al Ittihad, with even a draw against Al Wahda enough to see them through.

Also on the verge of progression are Group A’s Sepahan and Al Hihal, while Group E’s Tianjin Teda and Jeju United can qualify from their section if both prevail in their respective fixtures. Zob Ahan, last year’s runners-up, will also reach the last 16 if they defeat Al Rayyan and the other match also goes their way.

In stark contrast to these favourites are a series of strugglers who face elimination. The Uzbekistan duo of Pakhtakor and Bunyodkor are thrown into make-or-break ties against Iranians Esteghlal and Persepolis, while Australia's Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC are left to battle for a lifeline against Chinese Tianjin and Shanghai Shenhua. takes a closer look at the midweek action.

The match
Melbourne Victory-Tianjin Teda
With the continent's first qualifying spots in sight, the Chinese side have fixed their target on three points, despite being held to a 1-1 draw in their previous meeting at home a fortnight ago. Arie Haan's outfit arrive in Australia in prolific form after beating Chinese champions Shandong Luneng 3-1 at the weekend, with midfielder Chen Tao setting one up and scoring another. In the absence of defensive stalwart Marko Zoric through suspension, they can count on former China PR captain Li Weifeng to lead the rearguard with the on-song Chen providing the attacking spark. 

Inspired by their positive display in China, Melbourne are expecting to obtain their first win to keep their dim hopes alive. The hosts' caretaker coach Mehmet Durakovic has a near-full list at his disposal, with striking duo Danny Allsopp and Robbie Kruse available after missing the previous match, while Kevin Muscat, who scored the equaliser at Tianjin, will remain the cornerstone in the back. A 6-5 penalty shoot-out victory in a friendly played four years ago can provide the home side with further inspiration.

The other attractions
While wins over Al Gharafa and Al Jazira will make sure of Sepahan and Al Hilal’s progress respectively, even a point can secure the former's passage if the latter win, with the results also to confirm the Saudi champions' qualification. Both enter the crucial round boosted by their recent domestic performances, with Sepahan edging closer to their third league title after a 3-1 win over Teraktor Sazi, while Al Hilal clinched the Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Cup with a 5-0 dismantling of Al Wehda on Friday.

Zob Ahan will look not only to defeat bottom-side Al Rayyan, but also Emirates lose to runners-up Al Shabab if they are to take the section's first qualifying spot. The Iranian giants registered a 2-1 home win over Shahrdari Tabriz in the latest league fixture, but they have to keep wary of their visitors, who defeated the newly-crowned Qatari champions Lekhwiya by the identical scoreline in the concluding league match.

The Korean-Japanese affairs continue to take centre stage in the Far East and catching the limelight is the crunch tie between heavyweights Suwon Bluewings and Kashima Antlers. Despite their 1-1 stalemate in the previous match, both sides received spirited wins in the latest outings with the former running out 2-0 winners against Gangwon in the K-League and the latter pulling off a resounding 3-0 victory at Sydney FC in a postponed AFC Champions League match.

The player
Jeonbuk Motors striker Lee Dong-Gook was on target as his side thumped Gwangju  6-1 at the weekend. With four goals garnished from six league matches, the 31-year-old has proved that his scoring prowess never deserts him.  

What they said
"The match [against Nagoya Grampus] is about bragging rights, as our rivals are the J.League holders and we're the reigning K-League champions. It won't be easy for us but I am not afraid of anyone as long as our players show their desire to win," Kwan Hwang-Bo, FC Seoul coach.

Matchday 4 fixtures
Tuesday & Wednesday
Group A: Al Gharafa-Sepahan, Al Jazira-Al Hilal
Group B: Pakhtakor-Esteghlal, Al Nassr-Al Sadd 
Group C: Persepolis-Bunyodkor, Al Ittihad-Al Wahda
Group D: Zob Ahan-Al Rayyan,  Emirates-Al Shabab
Group E: Gamba Osaka-Jeju United, Melbourne Victory-Tianjin Teda
Group F: Al Ain-Hangzhou Greentown, FC Seoul-Nagoya Grampus
Group G: Jeonbuk Motors-Cerezo Osaka, Shandong Luneng-Arema Indonesia
Group H: Kashima Antlers-Suwon Bluewings, Shanghai Shenhua-Sydney FC