Last 16 in sight
© AFP

The competition in this year's AFC Champions League is set to pick up pace on Matchday 4 as a handful of leading teams attempt to book early passage with two games to spare.

To the west of the continent, the likes of two-time winners Al Ittihad and Pakhtakor know that a win will take them through to last 16 if other results in their respective groups go their way. At the same time, Group's B joint-leaders Al Shabab and Persepolis can establish unassailable positions in the top two with wins over Sharjah and Al Gharafa respectively.

Japanese sides dominate proceedings in the east, with holders Gamba Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale on course to advance in style. For Gamba, the only side still clinging to an unblemished record after three straight wins, even a draw against Indonesian hosts Sriwijaya will be enough to take them through, provided Shandong Luneng see off FC Seoul.

The same, however, cannot be said of Kawasaki, who will have to count on not only defeating Central Coast Mariners, but also on Pohang Steelers drawing against Tianjin Teda in the group's other match.

The big match
Sepahan (IRN)-Bunyodkor (UZB)
Having fought out a 2-2 draw in the corresponding fixture, hosts Sepahan and Bunyodkor are desperate to win the crucial return match to move into Group D's top two. Sepahan enter the game on the back of a 2-1 league victory over Abu Moslem, with the winning goal scored by Emad Mohammed, a prolific Iraqi striker who is likely to pose the greatest threat to the visitors. However, Bunyodkor are themselves on a run of six straight league wins and are eager to translate their domestic dominance into continental success. In the group's other game, Ettifaq travel to UAE to take on bottom side Al Arabi knowing that a win will strengthen their grip on the section.

Other headliners
Newcastle Jets (AUS)-Nagoya Grampus (JPN)
With Central Coast Mariners struggling in Group H with just two points from three games, the task of salvaging Australian hopes is likely to fall to Newcastle Jets, who edged to within a point of leaders Nagoya Grampus in their last game with a 1-1 draw against the Japanese side. While Gary van Egmond's outfit go into the return fixture determined to win, they will need to remain wary of their free-scoring rivals, who recently recorded 3-1 win over Omiya Ardija. The group's other match pits hosts Beijing against Ulsan Hyundai in a match that neither side can afford to lose.

FC Seoul (KOR)-Shandong Luneng (CHN)
Despite registering a 2-0 home win over FC Seoul in their last fixture to move into the second place, Shandong Luneng are not in the best shape as the return match looms. With star striker Han Peng suspended, the Chinese champions have set themselves the goal of claiming a point away from home. However, they will need to plug the gaps in their leaky defence, which saw them twice throw away the lead to draw 2-2 with ten-man Beijing Guoan on Saturday. Their Korean hosts, meanwhile, know that, with just three points from three games, only victory will keep their hopes alive. Group F's other match sees Gamba Osaka visit a Sriwijaya side still chasing their first point.

Elsewhere
The battle in Group G remains wide open, with three teams level on six points and Suwon Bluewings topping the table only on goal difference. With Kashima Antlers expected to make short work of Singapore's Armed Forces, whom they beat 4-1 last time around, the big match takes place in Korea Republic. After losing 2-1 in Shanghai in their previous fixture, Suwon continued to disappoint in the domestic arena, drawing against Inchon United on Sunday to slump to fourth-bottom. Their current troubles are not helped by the absence of Brazilian striker Eduardo, who is sidelined with injury. Shanghai, by contrast, can draw inspiration from their recent 4-1 over Shenzhen, a result that moved them into the second place in the C-League standings.

What they said
"After winning the first leg against FC Seoul, we have to manage at least a draw against them to keep our campaign on track. But as hosts they can be dangerous, so we have to keep 100 per cent concentration throughout the match," Shandong Luneng coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic.

2009 AFC Champions League Matchday 4 fixtures
21-22 April
Group A: Pakhtakor (UZB)-Saba Battery (IRN); Al Ahli (UAE)-Al Hilal (KSA)
Group B: Al Shabab (KSA)-Sharjah (UAE); Al Gharafa (QAT)-Persepolis (IRN)
Group C: Esteghlal (IRN)-UMM-Salal (QAT); Al Ittihad (KSA)-Al Jazira (UAE)
Group D: Al Arabi (UAE)-Ettifaq (KSA); Sepahan (IRN)-Bunyodkor (UZB)
Group E: Newcastle Jets (AUS)-Nagoya Grampus (JPN); Beijing Guoan (CHN)-Ulsan Hyundai (KOR)
Group F: FC Seoul (KOR)-Shandong Luneng (CHN); Sriwijaya (IDN)-Gamba Osaka (JPN)
Group G: Kashima Antlers (JPN)-Armed Forces (SIN); Suwon Bluewings (KOR)-Shanghai Shenhua (CHN)
Group H: Tianjin Teda (CHN)-Pohang Steelers (KOR); Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)-Central Coast (AUS)