AFC There is plenty at stake in Wednesday's AFC Champions League quarter-final, second legs, with all eight contenders harbouring hopes of a place in the last four.
The only two winning sides from the first encounters, Guangzhou Evergrande and Esteghlal may boast a clear edge heading into their respective returns but the pair should be wary of Lekhwiya and Buriram United, both of whom can count on their home support to turn the table.
FC Seoul, with a previous away point against Al Ahli, are expectant of continuing their good home form to progress. The same can be also said of Al Shabab, who are aiming to edge visiting Kashiwa Reysol on the back of their 1-1 first-leg draw.
Al Shabab-Kashiwa Reysol
FC Seoul-Al Ahli
Al Shabab-Kashiwa Reysol
It is the tournament's emerging power versus the established side when Kashiwa Reysol travel to Riyadh to challenge Al Shabab. The Saudi champions, who won their first and only continental title by prevailing in the 2001 Asian Cup Winners’ Cup, have qualified for the Champions League for seven times, including reaching the semi-finals in 2010. Kashiwa, though, are only playing in the tournament for a second time, having progressed into the Round of 16 in their debut last year.
The gap in class was illustrated in their first leg, when a Naif Hazazi-led Al Shabab looked the more dangerous side despite playing away. After Masato Kudo's opener for the Japanese was cancelled out by Fernando Menegazzo before the break, the Saudis dominated the second half with new signing Hazazi close to grabbing a match-winner.
Adding to the hosts' experience is their recent form in the Saudi league. Despite losing to Al Ittihad in the season opener, Al Shabab bounced back with two successive wins with in-form Hazazi twice on target. Kashiwa, meanwhile, suffered their ninth defeat of this season on Friday after being stunned by Jubilo Iwata 3-1 at home.
Still, the visitors can take heart from their smooth group campaign and can count on the goal-scoring form of Kudo, who has managed 15 league goals. Having disappointed on home front – they languish 12th in the J.League, the Champions League is regarded by Kashiwa as perhaps the rare chance to redeem themselves this term.
The other attractions
Guangzhou travel to Doha aiming to become the first Chinese club to reach the semi-finals since Shenzhen in 2005, and boosted by their 2-0 win on home soil, Marcello Lippi’s men are in best-placed of the eight sides to progress. Despite recently suffering their first defeat of the 2013 Chinese C-League, Guangzhou bounced back by edging Shanghai Shenhua by 2-1 with striker Elkeson scoring the winner. Lekhwiya managed a 3-3 draw at Al Siliya in their season-opener on Friday. To stun Guangzhou, the hosts will look to Tunisian forward Youssef Msekni while defender Mohammed Musa is back from injury to shore up the rearguard.
If the recent form is anything to go by, it seems that Buriram United look set to pull off another surprise despite losing 1-0 at Esteghlal. Since their last meeting, the Thai cup holders have won four league matches in a row, including upstaging BEC Tero Sasana by 2-0 to leapfrog the inaugural Champions League runners-up and restore their place at the summit. It has been a different story for Esteghlal, who have suffered two consecutive losses against Khozestan and Zob Ahan.
Inspired by their 2-0 win over visiting Pohang Steelers on Friday, FC Seoul are hoping to continue their fine home form against Al Ahli. Having grabbed a valuable away point with a 1-1 draw in Jeddah, the hosts need merely a goalless draw to go through. With Dejan Damjanovic shouldering the scoring tasks, veteran defender Adilson's timely return surely boosts the capital side's hopes. Having come up with a pair of draws in Saudi league recently, Al Ahli must count on playmaker Mustafa Al Bassas to surprise the hosts.
Having almost single-handedly steered Al Ittihad through against Guangzhou in the same stage last year, Naif Hazazi is expecting to emulate this feat with his new side Al Shabab.
2- Three teams, namely Guangzhou, Kashiwa and Lekhwiya, are playing in the AFC Champions League for a second time.
What they said
Eric Gerets, Lekhwiya coach: "It is uphill tasks for us but the two-goal first-leg deficit is not a death penalty. Despite the difficulties facing us, we still harbour hopes and can progress if we do our job well.”