Asian Leagues review
The focus returned to domestic matters across Asia over the past week following the AFC Asian Cup. Following a largely disappointing campaign for west Asia, whose representatives were absent from the semi-finals at Qatar 2011, fans in that half of the continent were able to turn their attention to their respective local competitions where the hunt for domestic honours continues in earnest.
In Iran, Esteghlal closed upon pace-setters Zob Ahan, while in Qatar, reigning champions Al Gharafa maintained pressure upon surprise leaders Lekhwiya. Brisbane Roar claimed some domestic glory in Australia, while FIFA.com’s regular whistle-stop tour around the continent this week also takes in the latest in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Iran: Zob Ahan lose ground
Zob Ahan remain at the top of the Iran Pro League despite suffering a 2-0 home defeat against Saipa although their stumble provided a chance for some of the chasing pack to edge closer to the summit. Two-time champions Esteghlal, who moved up into the runners-up position following their 3-1 win of Steel Azin, trimmed Zob Ahan’s lead to five points. A goalless draw at Shahin may have seen Sepahan concede second place but with a game in hand the defending champions remain in the hunt.
Big game: Zob Ahan suffered only their third defeat in 21 fixtures this season as strugglers Saipa produced one of the round's biggest surprises. The impressive victory, however, should be largely attributed to their ace-striker Karim Ansarifard, who opened the scoring after 18 minutes to set his side on the road to victory, with Amin Manouchehri sealing the three points on the hour-mark.
Headline-grabbers: Farhad Majidi scored a brace as Esteghlal cruised past bottom side Steel Azin. The former Iranian international put his side ahead after only four minutes, and although Ferydoon Zandi soon restored parity, Majidi restored their lead prior to the interval, before Seyed Mehdi Salefi wrapped up the victory with 17 minutes to go.
Qatar: No change at the top
Newly-promoted Lekhwiya maintained their charge for a stunning title claim by defending their place at the top with a 2-0 win at Al Siliya in the Qatar Stars League. Second-placed Al Gharafa maintained the pressure upon the leaders after sweeping past Al Ahli at home by an identical scoreline. The result saw the defending champions remain just a point off the pace, while hot on their heels are Al Arabi who battled out a hard-fought 2-1 victory at Umm Salal.
Big game: Playing in front of their adoring fans against the bottom side Al Ahli, whom they trounced 7-1 in the previous meeting, Al Gharafa must have been confident of pulling off another resounding win. However, the visitors defended well in numbers throughout the opening half and only two goals in quick succession midway though the second half secured the hosts their ninth win of the season. Fahid Al Shammari struck after 64 minutes to finally break the deadlock with Anas Mobarak doubling the advantage five minutes later.
Headline-grabbers: Lekhwiya continued their stunning run this season by claiming their ninth win from twelve outings but the competition new boys were indebted to their two African imports. Moroccan defender Abdeslam Ouaddou put his side ahead on 41 minutes before their Ivorian striker Bakary Kone struck late on to seal the triumph.
Australia: Brisbane claim glory
Brisbane Roar secured the Premiers Plate for finishing at the top of the league standings without kicking a ball in the penultimate round of the A-League season. The Roar’s weekend fixture at North Queensland Fury was a victim of a recent cyclone in Australia’s north, but the inability of second-placed Central Coast Mariners to secure more than a draw at Melbourne Heart saw Ange Postecoglou’s side take the crown for the first time. The point for the Mariners however means they remain in touching distance of a top-two finish and a double chance in the upcoming finals series. Champions and 2011 AFC Champions League participants Sydney FC have been eliminated from finals contention following their 1-1 draw at Newcastle Jets, whom themselves still harbour the slimmest hopes of finals football.
Big game: Wellington Phoenix are all but assured of their place in the top-six thanks to a hard-fought 1-0 win at Adelaide United. Chris Greenacre’s first-half goal proving to be the difference as the New Zealanders seek a repeat last season's success, where they qualified for the finals for the first time.
Headline-grabbers: Shane Smeltz scored a double for Gold Coast United in their 2-1 victory at Perth Glory with the New Zealand striker continuing his return to form following recent disappointing spells in China and Turkey.
Saudi Arabia champions Al Hilal played hosts to arch-rivals Al Ittihad but the top-of-the-standing meeting ending in a scoreless stalemate, with the former remaining five points clear of their rivals. In the Jordan Pro League, high-flying Al Wahdat were held 1-1 at home by Mansheyat Bani Hasan, a result which allowed second-placed Al Faysali to reduce the gap to six points after their 4-1 defeat of Al Ahli.