The race for continental supremacy in Asia will resume with the AFC Champions League quarter-final, first-leg ties taking place on Wednesday. After a four-month hiatus the eight remaining contenders have enjoyed a chance to prepare for an assault on the continent’s most treasured prize, with the victor to also secure passage to December’s FIFA Club World Cup in Japan.
As was the case last year Korea Republic have the most representatives in the last eight, and, having won in both 2009 and 2010, the east Asians are again well placed for more glory. Hoping to break the Korean run are Iran duo Sepahan and Zob Ahan, Japan’s Cerezo Osaka, perennial Saudi challengers Al Ittihad and Qatar’s Al Sadd. Join FIFA.com as we take a close look at four enticing match-ups.
Suwon Bluewings-Zob Ahan
Zob Ahan travel to Suwon seeking to recreate last year’s stunning and unexpected run to the final, where they lost 3-1 to Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. At this stage last year Zob Ahan eliminated holders Pohang Steelers 3-2 on aggregate, a proud achievement which the Iranians will undoubtedly use as motivation on their latest trip to Korea.
Having twice conquered Asia, though, it is the Koreans that have the pedigree to go through. Featuring four national team players including their star goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong, the hosts are a formidable side at both domestic and continental level, as evidenced by a thrilling 3-2 victory over Seongnam on the weekend. The visitors, for their part, must improve their leaky defense which saw them concede late goals to draw against both Malavan and Persepolis recently, although upfront they can count on in-form Brazilian marksman Igor Castro, who scored a famous winner against Al Hilal in last year's semi-final.
The other attractions
Jeonbuk Motors and Cerezo Osaka meet once again having already crossed paths in the group stage with each enjoying 1-0 home victories. Both will enter this latest encounter in prolific form, with Jeonbuk crushing Incheon United 4-2 at home to maintain their seven-point lead at the summit of K-League standings, while Cerezo edged out Sanfrecce Hiroshima in a 5-4 thriller on Saturday. Spearheaded by striking veteran Lee Dong-Gook, the visiting Koreans look very much the team to beat but the hosts, having impressed in their continental debut so far, have proved they are more than capable of causing an upset.
Hosts Al Ittihad and FC Seoul have experienced contrasting recent form ahead of their meeting at Jeddah, with the Saudi giants prevailing 5-3 over Al Taawun in their weekend season opener, while the latter fell 2-1 to Daegu FC. Under the recently-returned Dimitri Davidovic and captained by the talismanic Mohammed Noor, Al Ittihad have set their sights firmly on their third Asian title. The Koreans, though only their second continental appearance, undoubtedly have the pedigree to progress through what is shaping as an epic match-up.
Elsewhere, the only game that features non-Korean teams pits Qatar’s Al Sadd against Sepahan, with the Iranian hosts aiming to build on their runners-up performance in 2007. However, the void left by recently departed striking duo Ibrahima Toure and Javad Kazemian has proved hard to fill, with the Iranian champions suffering consecutive defeats in recent domestic outings. With their AFC Asian Cup hero Yusef Ahmed leading the attacking-line, the Qataris are capable of springing a surprise at Isfahan.
Player to watch
Despite making only 9 international appearances with Montenegro, Dejan Damjanovic has enjoyed a highly productive career with FC Seoul, having twice won the top-scorer awards in 2008 and 2009 before steering the capital club to last year’s league championship. The towering forward's goalscoring form could be key if the Koreans are to dispense with two-time champions Ittihad.
10 - Topping the current Champions League scoring-chart with 6 goals, Suwon striker Ha Tae-Goon is still four goals away from the all-time record set by Gamba Osaka's Leandro in 2009.
What they said
“Jeonbuk is physically stronger than us, but I believe that we are technically and strategically better. We are expecting a victory on Wednesday. There are many young players in our team, but they will give their all to win the game,” Cerezo Osaka coach Levir Culpi
2011 AFC Champions League quarter-finals, first leg:
Cerezo Osaka-Jeonbuk Motors
Al Ittihad-FC Seoul
Suwon Bluewings-Zob Ahan