AFC Champions League preview
If recent history is anything to go by, it seems that home advantage is not always something to rely on as the eight group winners entertain the respective runners-up in the Round of 16 in this year’s AFC Champions League.
Despite the backing of the so-called ‘12th man’, only three group winners emerged victorious at this stage in the 2009, giving the underdogs a cause for hope this time around.
All eyes are on the South Korean quartet of Pohang Steelers, Suwon Bluewings, Jeonbuk Motors and Seongnam Ilhwa, who are up against formidable opponents.
Al Hilal (KSA)-Bunyodkor (UZB)
Two of the highly favoured teams, Al Hilal and Bunyodkor had started their Champions League campaign brightly but it was the Saudi giants who proved to be the more consistent performers in the group stages. Under Belgian Eric Gerets, the Riyadh outfit is hitting top form having won their 12th domestic league title. They may have lost the recent King’s Cup final to Al Ittihad on a penalty shoot-out, but, with Yasser Al Qahtani and Bundesliga-bound Thiago Neves in goalscoring form, Al-Zaeem are confident in overcoming the men from Uzbekistan.
Bunyodkor, for their part, boast the likes of Rivaldo and 2008 AFC Player of the Year Server Djeparov in their ranks. Under Brazilian coach Luis Felipe Scolari, they overcame indifferent form midway through the group stages to scrape through to the knockout phase. Furthermore, they travel to the Saudi capital boosted by a 2-1 victory over Dinamo, a result which sent them back to the top of the Oliy Liga.
However, Bunyodkor will be missing the service of Denilson and Ignatiy Nesterov, while Al Hilal have to make do without Mohammed Al Fraidi and Ahmed Hairat.
The other headline-grabbers
Pohang fired six unanswered goals past Newcastle Jets in last year's Round of 16, en route to winning the Asian title but the K-League giants are not expected to have it that easy away to Kashima Antlers, the only team to maintain a perfect record in the group phase. A 5-2 home defeat to Jeju United on Saturday may see Pohang arrive at Kashima a little downcast while their Japanese hosts were able to rest during the weekend with their fixture against Shonan Bellmare postponed.
Also opting to focus on continental glory are Beijing Guoan, who had a match rescheduled in order to prepare for the tie against Suwon Bluewings. The only Chinese representatives who remain in the competition, Beijing will be looking to upstage their Korean hosts with the national pride at stake.
Adelaide United and Jeonbuk Motors square off in high-profile encounter Down Under. Having being edged out by Chunnam Dragons 3-2 midway through last week, the K-League champions stuttering form will not be helped by the absence of suspended Kim Sang-Sik and Brazilian striker Luiz Henrique. The Australians, who have not scored in their last three outings, will hope their Dutch striker Sergio van Dijk will rediscover his goalscoring touch.
Seongnam Ilhwa welcome Gamba Osaka hoping to continue their rampant form which saw them hammer Chunnam Dragons 4-0. Despite this, they cannot afford to underestimate the attack-minded Japanese, who recorded a 4-4 against Kawasaki Frontale on Wednesday.
The only team to have appeared in every single edition of the Champions League, Uzbekistan outfit Pakhtakor have a tough test from high-flying Al Gharafa, who took the group stage by storm under Brazilian tactician Caio Junior. Odds could be stacked in the Qatari's favour with Iraqi forward Younis Mahmoud spearheading their attack while the visitors will be missing their talisman Alexander Geynrikh alongside Aleksandr Kletskov and Stanislav Andreev through suspension.
Elsewhere, Esteghlal take Al Shabab while Zob Ahan do battle with Mes Kerman in an all-Iranian affair. The Iranian teams have impressed in this year’s competition to date with three of their four participants advancing to this stage.
Player to watch
Having scored three goals which propelled Beijing to three victories, Australian import Joel Griffiths has been the key man for the Chinese champions. Capable of scoring from nothing, he is the player that Beijing can rely on against Suwon.
What they said
"As a striker I want to score, but don’t forget we’re playing AFC Champions League, which is even tougher than the A-League. I’m just hoping to be in the right place at the right time." Adelaide United striker Sergio van Dijk
2010 AFC Champions League Round of 16 fixtures
Al Gharafa (QAT)- Pakhtakor (UZB)
Suwon Bluewings (KOR)- Beijing Guoan (CHN)
Seongnam Ilhwa (KOR)- Gamba Osaka (JPN)
Al Shabab (KSA)- Esteghlal (IRN)
Kashima Antlers (JPN)- Pohang Steelers
Zob Ahan (IRN)- Mes Kerman (IRN)
Adelaide United (AUS)- Jeonbuk Motors (KOR)
Al Hilal (KSA)- Bunyodkor (UZB)