The AFC Champions League resumes on Wednesday, with eight representatives from East Asia battling for a berth in the quarter-finals. The round of 16 matches in the western half of the continent were completed late last month with Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad and Qatar's Umm Salal, plus Uzbek giants Bunyodkor and Pakhtakor all winning their way through to the last eight.
After impressing throughout the group stages, the four participating J-league sides are expected to continue their strong form and stake a strong claim for progression. However, one J-League side is certain to fall with Gamba Osaka locking horns with Kawasaki Frontale in an all-Japanese affair. Kashima Antlers and Nagoya Grampus face tough challengers from Korea Republic opposition in FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings respectively, however their home advantage could prove decisive in the single-leg ties.
Elsewhere, Australia's Newcastle Jets, the only remaining participant from outside Japan or Korea Republic, will cross swords with Pohang Steelers in what will likely be a tight contest. Having twice beaten Ulsan Hyundai to finish the group in second, the Jets will count on winning form against the Korean sides to continue their role as Australia's remaining flag-bearers.
The big match
Gamba Osaka - Kawasaki Frontale
Reigning Asian champions Gamba Osaka proved the most prolific side in the group stage with 17 goals scored in six games. However, their defence will have to be watchful when they play host to Kawasaki Frontale, who boast the scoring talents of Korea DPR striker Jong Tae-se and Brazilian trio Juninho, Renatinho and Vitor Junior. Kawasaki have proved unstoppable when on form, a point borne out when they inflicted a 4-0 defeat on Gamba last November in the two sides most recent meeting. The hosts, for their part, can also count on their free-scoring Brazilian hotshot Leandro and draw inspiration from a strong head-to-head record against Kawasaki.
Pohang Steelers - Newcastle Jets
In their fairy-tale run to the AFC Asian Champions League final last year, Australia's Adelaide United twice defeated Pohang Steelers to win their group. The memory of those dual defeats against a similar opponent may weigh heavily on the home side. Coach Gary Van Egmond's charges demonstrated their disciplined play and counter-attacking prowess in the group stage, and a tight contest is expected given Pohang's mean defense which has conceded just three goals in six games. The Jets though have significant injury concerns over their international defensive pairing of Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Ljubo Milicevic, while on the flipside Pohang's Brazilian striker Denilson striker has been in rare form netted four goals in the last two games.
The encounter between Kashima Antlers and FC Seoul is an intriguing contest between the respective Japanese and Korea Republic league leaders. The Antlers have remained at the summit of this season's J-league throughout the campaign and are well on track to record their fifth domestic title while FC Seoul have taken the K-league by storm, notching eight wins in 13 games to top the league table alongside Gwangju Sangmu Phoenix.
Despite excelling in the group stage, Nagoya Grampus and Suwon Bluewings have not been faring well domestically, with the former sitting ninth while the latter are languishing fifth from bottom. A win for either team will provide a significant morale boost, as well as secure a berth amongst the continent's elite.
Player to watch
A bevy of Brazilian imports will continue to spearhead the attack for a number of teams, with Gamba Osaka's Leandro among the most notable. Leandro has proved the title holders' most lethal weapon, scoring eight times to top the tournament's scoring chart. His scoring form, in combination with Japanese creator Yasuhito Endo will be crucial for Gamba if they are to prevail against Kawasaki.
What they said
"I was hoping to see all the J-League teams advance to the quarter-finals. However, in our match against Kawasaki, only one can advance and I hope that will be Gamba," Gamba Osaka coach Akira Nishino.
2009 AFC Champions League Round of 16 fixtures:
24 June (East Asia)
Nagoya Grampus (JPN) - Suwon Bluewings (KOR)
Gamba Osaka (JPN) - Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)
Kashima Antlers (JPN) - FC Seoul (KOR)
Pohang Steelers (KOR) - Newcastle Jets (AUS)