The penultimate matchday of the AFC Champions League group phase sees a number of front-runners on the verge of early progression. A series of former champs in Al Ittihad, Al Ain, Pohang Steelers, Jeonbuk Motors, Ulsan Hyundai as well as current kings Guangzhou Evergrande are aiming to seal their places in the Round of 16, while the same can be said of runaway leaders Al Shabab, El Jaish and Foolad, all of whom need just a draw to advance.
Melbourne Victory-Guangzhou Evergrande
Group G leaders Guangzhou have locked their target on no less than three points at Melbourne Victory in what marks their 600th official match since being founded in 1993. Indeed, a victory against the Australians can send Marcello Lippi's visitors through regardless of the result between Yokohama F. Marinos and Jeonbuk. However, the Chinese travel to Melbourne with a much depleted team, with playmaker Alessandro Diamanti ruled out through injury and in-form forward Gao Lin missing due to suspension. Last year's top-marksman Muriqui remains out-of-shape but there is some good news for Guangzhou with the return of captain Zheng Zhi and left-back Sun Xiang, both of whom were rested in their 5-2 rout of Tianjin Teda on Saturday.
Melbourne are, of course, in desperate search of victory heading into the home game, considering Kevin Muscat's side are left with few options but to win after their 3-2 defeat to Yokohama left them equal bottom alongside the Japanese. If they can reproduce the home form which saw them draw against Jeonbuk and down Yokohama in the previous matches, they can inflict a first defeat on Australian soil upon Guangzhou. With James Jeggo suspended, the home side will look to the goal-scoring form of James Troisi and Kosta Barbarouses, while the most consistent performer remains captain Mark Milligan, who sealed their 4-1 triumph with a penalty at Wellington Phoenix on Saturday.
The other attractions
Like Guangzhou, joint leaders Jeonbuk travel to Yokohama knowing an away win is all but enough to seal their place in the next stage. The 2006 winners followed up their 1-0 home defeat of Guangzhou with another solitary-goal victory against Ulsan Hyundai in the K League on Saturday. Yokohama must, however, push aside their 2-0 loss at Vegalta Sendai heading into the re-meeting against the Koreans.
Group A pace-setters Al Shabab need just a point at Esteghlal to book their progression. After seeing Al Nasr win the Saudi league title in last week's concluding round, during which they finished fourth with a 3-1 loss to Al Orubah, the Riyadh giants switch full focus to the Asian competition. Al Jazira, too, have high hopes of qualifying with a draw at Al Rayyan, who were condemned to relegation despite winning 4-2 at Maitheer in the Qatari league.
The scenarios of Group B are simple, with joint leaders El Jaish and Foolad need a point against each other to progress together. The former finished Qatari league runners-up with a goalless draw against Al Khor on Friday, while Foolad's form was even more impressive, having secured their second Iranian league title with a 1-0 defeat of Tabriz.
While Group C's top-two sides Al Ittihad and Al Ain can progress if both win against Tractor Sazi and Lekhwiya, the pair boast contrasting form. The former were on the receiving end in a 2-0 loss at Najran in the closing league match while the latter, despite languishing in the middle of the table with three games remaining, ran riot in a 5-0 demolition of Al Shabab.
In a hard Group D, even leaders Al Ahli and Al Hilal can't afford any slip-up against each other in the section's top-of-the-table clash. The former enter the re-match on the back of a 3-1 defeat of Jazira and the latter can look to the form of top-striker Nassir Al Shamrani, who scored the only goal against Al Fath in the closing league match. Elsewhere, Sepahan entertain Al Sadd with both sides seeking to move into the top two with three points.
Group E leaders Pohang Steelers have gone eight matches undefeated in all competitions this season but the 2009 champions' form will be tested at Cerezo Osaka, who held them to a 1-1 draw in the first encounter. In the other match, Shandong Luneng will look to put their 4-2 home defeat against Pohang behind them as they aim to win at Buriram United.
Group F leaders Central Coast Mariners couldn't have received a better morale-boost ahead of their home meeting with FC Seoul after defeating A-League front-runners Brisbane Roar 2-0 on Saturday. Despite losing the first leg 2-0, the Australians are looking to their home form to avenge the defeat with a win. Beijing Guoan, meanwhile, welcome Sanfrecce Hiroshima boosted by a 2-1 victory at Guizhou Renhe.
Elsewhere, a home win against Western Sydney Wanderers is enough to see Ulsan qualify from Group H, while bottom side Guizhou face a must-win against visiting Kawasaki Frontale if they are to keep their hopes alive.
Player to watch
With Pohang unstoppable on both the home and Asia scene, the 2009 winners will again look to captain Kim Taesu for his goals and leadership. The midfielder played a pivotal role as his side fought from two goals down to draw Shandong at home, and was again on target in their 4-2 rout of the same opponents.
1 - Bunyodkor are staring at group phase elimination for the first time while Foolad are on the cusp of maiden progression.
What they said
"I have never been fired during my coaching career (in Brazil), instead I have earned respect and thanks. So I think it will remain the same here," Shandong Luneng coach Cuca
Matchday 5 fixtures
15 & 16 April
Group A: Al Rayyan-Jazira, Al Shabab-Esteghlal
Group B: Foolad-El Jaish, Bunyodkor-Al Fateh
Group C: Al Ittihad-Tractor Sazi, Lekhwiya-Al Ain
Group D: Al Ahli-Al Hilal, Sepahan-Al Sadd
Group E: Buriram United-Shandong Luneng, Cerezo Osaka-Pohang Steelers
Group F: Beijing Guoan-Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Central Coast Mariners-FC Seoul
Group G: Yokohama F. Marinos-Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Melbourne Victory-Guangzhou Evergrande
Group H: Ulsan Hyundai-Western Sydney Wanderers, Guizhou Renhe-Kawasaki Frontale