Japan's Gamba Osaka stunned Tianjin Teda with two late goals to supplant the Group E leaders and reach the AFC Champions League last 16 on Wednesday, as Melbourne Victory's charge fell just short.
In a tense night at Expo 70 Stadium, Gamba were in danger of elimination until Yasuhito Endo's opener on 74th minutes, before Takashi Usami made it 2-0 in the dying seconds. China's Tianjin were the only team already qualified from Group E, with Gamba, Victory and Jeju United all in the running for the second spot heading into the final round.
Jeju and bottom-placed Victory fought to a 1-1 draw in South Korea, but the result was immaterial after Gamba's late double put the J.League side through alongside Tianjin. In hardman and skipper Kevin Muscat's last professional game, Victory had five 'goals' chalked off for offside - two controversially - and striker Robbie Kruse saw a shot cleared off the line. But they cancelled out Kim Eun-Jung's well-crafted opening strike with a sweet volley from midfielder Diogo Ferreira, who buried his shot from 20 yards.
The last-day scramble finally snuffs out Victory's faint hopes of knockout football after they lost their first two games but then went on a four-match unbeaten run. It also confirms the retirement of fiery ex-Premier League defender Muscat, who will be remembered by some for a series of much-criticised tackles, including January's scything challenge which earned him an eight-match A-League ban.
Double for Saudi representatives
Saudi outfit Al Hilal took second spot in Group A behind Iranian giants Sepahan after winning 2-0 at home against Qatar's Al Gharafa. Sepahan came away 4-1 winners at Al Jazira to ensure a home clash with Uzbek club Bunyodkor in the last 16. Brazilian Jader Volnei Spindler, better known as Bare, opened for the hosts after 14 minutes but Javad Kazemeyan pulled Sepahan level after 32 minutes before Ibrahima Toure scored twice (60, 71) and Reza Enayati completed the rout for the Iranians.
Meanwhile Qatari outfit Al Sadd finished top of Group B despite being held to a 1-1 draw at already eliminated Uzbek side Pakhtakor. The hosts took the lead through Stanislav Andreev just before the hour mark and had looked on course for all three points until Madji Siddiq's late free-kick caught out substitute keeper Eldor Tadjibaev.
There was heart-break however for Iranian side Esteghlal whose 2-1 home victory over Al Nassr was not enough to seal a last 16 place as they lost out to their Saudi rivals who finished second in Group B on goal difference. Bader Al Mutwa opened on the hour mark in Tehran before Farhad Majidi equalised two minutes later and Hawar Zeebari got the winner a minute from time.
Group F table-toppers FC Seoul were held to a 1-1 draw by China's Hangzhou Greentown courtesy of Zeng Yue's equaliser after two minutes of stoppage time. And the Korean side got to secure home advantage for this month's round of 16 after Al Ain ended Japan's Nagoya Grampus bid to top Group F with a 3-1 win in Abu Dhabi.
With Grampus and Seoul FC both on ten points before the game, the Japanese needed a win to seal a home advantage for the one-off round of 16. Al Ain led 2-0 at the break thanks to goals from Hamad Almarri and Elias Ribeiro de Oliveira with the Brazilian slotting home a second with a 50-minute penalty after Genta Matsuo brought down Haddaf Abdullah inside the box. Fujimoto Jungo got one back for the J.League team after 49 minutes.
The top two teams from eight groups qualify for the round of 16, before two-legged quarter and semi-finals followed by a one-match final in November to decide Asian football's top club honour.