Asia’s domestic football scene is currently providing intrigue, upsets and expectation in equal measure with leagues in the east reaching the business end of the respective seasons. However, in the west there is a sense of optimism with a host of new league campaigns getting underway.
FIFA.com reviews the action at both ends of the spectrum starting in Japan, Korea Republic and China PR, where the frontrunners endured differing weekends. Meanwhile, the new season commenced in Qatar, one of the great derbies of world football took place in Tehran and the legendary Diego Maradona finally began his latest coaching chapter in the United Arab Emirates. There is also a look at the action from Saudi Arabia and Vanuatu.
Japan’s J.League: Quartet continue tight tussle
Gamba Osaka saw their lead at the top trimmed to just one point following a 1-1 draw at fellow title hopefuls Yokohama F Marinos. The home side took a first-half lead through Shingo Hyodo only for Rafinha to equalise near the hour mark as the Brazilian hit his ninth goal since joining Gamba in July. Newly-promoted Kashiwa Reysol continued their fine form by overwhelming Vissel Kobe 4-0, with Junya Tanaka among the scorers for his 12th of the season. Kashiwa now have a two-point gap on Yokohama, defending champions Nagoya Grampus are a further point afield, with Vegalta Sendai an additional nine points adrift.
Big game: Japan defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka used his famed heading ability to secure an equaliser as Nagoya drew with seven-time champions Kashima 1-1, for whom Chikashi Masuda had opened the scoring.
Headline-grabber: Tadanari Lee, the hero of Japan's AFC Asian Cup victory in January, scored twice to lead Sanfrecce Hiroshima to a 3-1 win over Jubilo Iwata. The striker now has 13 goals to his name to sit only one behind Josh Kennedy as the league’s top goalscorer.
Korea Republic’s K-League: Big guns maintain consistency
Leaders Jeonbuk Motors, Pohang Steelers and Suwon Bluewings collected all three points on the road, while champions FC Seoul left it late to beat Busan I’Park at home. With only five matches remaining in the regular season the battle to qualify for the six-team play-off intensified, as fifth-placed Chunnam Dragons were held at home by Jeju United in seventh. Meanwhile, Ulsan Horangi came within striking distance of the top six after a 3-1 victory over Sangju Sangmu, but Asian champions Seongnam Chunma lost by the same scoreline at Gwangju to drop to 13th.
Big game: Substitute Kang Jung-Hun struck a late winner as Seoul came from behind to defeat Busan 2-1 at home. The visitors took the lead four minutes before half-time with centre-back Eder Baiano heading home from close range. But the hosts did not give up without a fight, as Kim Dong-Jin restored parity with a clinical finish before Kang claimed the headlines with a point-blank finish a minute from the end.
Headline-grabber: Lee Dong-Gook is on the verge of becoming the first player to have won the grand slam of individual awards in the K-League, as the Jeonbuk striker recorded his 13th assist of the season in a 3-1 win at Gyeongnam. Lee was the top scorer and most valuable player when the Motors won the championship in 2009, having won the rookie of the year award on his debut for Pohang in 1998.
Qatar's Stars League: Heavyweights open brightly
There were no major surprises on the opening day of the new Qatari season, with holders Lekhwiya opening their title-defence with a solitary-goal victory at Al Wakra, while Al Gharrafa emerged 2-0 victors over visiting Qatar FC in what has been dubbed as the Old Champions derby. It was, however, a less than satisfying start for AFC Champions League quarter-finalists Al Sadd and seven-time winners Al Rayyan, both of whom were forced to battle from behind to draw 1-1 against Al Khritiyat and Umm Salal respectively.
Big game: Having conceded the championship to Lekhwiya last season, Al Gharrafa firmly stated their intentions by overwhelming Qatar SC at home. Brazilian forward Edmilson put Gharrafa ahead midway through the first half, before Belal Mohamed rounded off the triumph 22 minutes from time.
Headline-grabber: Al Sadd were lucky to salvage a point against Al Rayyan, with midfielder Tahir Zakariya striking deep into stoppage time to cancel out a first-half opener from Bahrain international Jaycee John. The result will provide little assurance to former national team coach Jorge Fossati ahead of Al Sadd’s AFC Champions League tie against Sepahan next week, with the Iranians having a 1-0 first-leg advantage.
One of the highlights of the Iran domestic calendar took place on the weekend as Esteghlal faced Persepolis in the 71st Tehran derby. A packed Azadi stadium witnessed a 2-0 win for Esteghlal with the Blues returning to the top thanks to goals in each half from Farhad Majidi and Mojtaba Jabbari. Conversely, the result leaves Persepolis languishing in 15th just above the drop zone. Second on goal difference are Saba Battery who edged a win on the road at Mes Sarcheshmeh with a lone strike from Hejazi Pour Hosein
In China PR, runaway leaders Guangzhou Yiyao suffered their first defeat in 24 outings, losing 2-1 at Changchun Yatai, but they still enjoy a 12-point cushion at the summit with six rounds remaining. With Guangzhou so dominant at the top, the chasing pack are seemingly left to vie for second and third and thus guarantee their qualification for next year's AFC Champions League. Leading the hunt for continental football are Beijing Guoan, who cemented their hold on second with a 3-0 triumph at Shenzhen Ruby, while Changchun leapfrogged Liaoning Whowin to third.
In Saudi Arabia, Nassir Al Shamrani struck in each half as Al Shabab overcame hosts and holders Al Hilal 2-0. The spirited win moves them top of the standings in the fledgling season on six points alongside Al Ittifaq and Al Ahli, who defeated Najran and Al Nasr 3-0 and 2-0 respectively.
Diego Maradona made his competitive debut as coach of United Arab Emirates’ Al Wasl last Thursday, with the Argentine’s team suffering a narrow 4-3 loss against champions Al Jazira in the Etisalat Cup. Without a victory against Jazira in the past five seasons, Wasl appeared set to earn a draw after coming from 3-1 down, only for prolific Brazilian striker Bare to head home a winner deep into injury time.
Finally, in Vanuatu, OFC O-League runners-up Amicale commenced their new season with silverware by taking out the TVL Cup ahead of the continental campaign recommencing next month. Striker Fenedy Masauvakalo and Solomon Islands international Joachim Waroi scored second-half goals to end the hopes of Spirit 08, coached by former national team mentor Carlos Buzzetti.