Asia Leagues review
With the 2011 AFC Champions League commencing on Tuesday, many of the domestic league fixtures across the continent over the weekend provided an opportunity to hone final preparations. In east Asia, the leagues of Japan, Korea Republic and China have yet to commence while Australia’s two Champions League participants – Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory – have already been eliminated from championship contention.
In the west however most leagues are in full swing and on the downhill run towards their respective finales. In Saudi Arabia, three of their four contenders go into the opening round of the continental finals in winning form, while Iranian pace-setters Zob Ahan, as well as embattled big guns Persepolis, also prevailed in their respective matches.
With the OFC O-League taking centre-stage in Oceania, join FIFA.com as we review action across the Asian continent.
Saudi Arabia: Al Hilal leave it late
Both leaders Al Hilal and second-placed Al Ittihad continued their unbeaten run so far this season after emerging victors in their respective outings. The results, however, allowed the former to maintain their six-point cushion ahead of the latter after eighteen rounds. Keeping pressures on the top two are Al Nasr, who overcame Al Faysali 3-2 to leapfrog Al Shabab into third.
Big game: Four days prior to their opening contest against Iranian outfits Sepahan, Al Hilal battled out a 2-1 victory at Al Fath to make sure they enter the Asian finals on a high note. Mirel Radoi put the visitors in front after 19 minutes but the hosts fought back hard and drew themselves level through Ahmed Bouabid with only eleven minutes remaining. Al Hilal had the final say however with Majed Al Marshadi striking the winner late into added time.
Headline-grabber: Al Shabab may be left ruing a 1-1 draw at struggling Al Qadisiyah but last year's AFC Champions League semi-finalists will take heart from the form of ace-striker Nassir Al Shamrani who opened the scoring on four minutes, and who sits atop the league's scoring chart with twelve goals.
Iran: Zob Ahan strengthen lead
It was honours even for Tehran giants Esteghlal and defending champions Sepahan with the pair battling out a 1-1 in the week's top meeting in Iran. With the two sides maintaining their places in second and third respectively, the result allowed Zob Ahan to cement their place at the top with a 2-1 victory at Saba Battery.
Big game: Two extra-time goals saw Zob Ahan come away with a hard-fought victory at Saba Battery. The hosts broke the deadlock after 85 minutes courtesy of Ramin Rezaeian but they may have thought that Lady Luck was not on their side as Zob Ahan struck twice within two minutes to complete an unlikely comeback victory. Farshid Talebi was firstly on target to equalise before Mohammad Ghazi Najafabadi sealed what may prove to be three crucial points.
Headline-grabber: Since scoring the winning goal for Iran against Korea DPR in a group match at the recent AFC Asian Cup, Iran hopeful Karim Ansarifard has maintained his goalscoring touch with Saipa. The 20-year-old striking prodigy scored his thirteenth goal in the latest outing as his side registered a 2-1 home victory over Pas-Hamadan.
Australia: Then there were three
Brisbane Roar moved into their first A-League grand final with an uncharacteristically nervy display against Central Coast Mariners before drawing 2-2 at home to win through to the decider 4-2 on aggregate. The Mariners will now meet Gold Coast United, 3-2 victors at Adelaide United, next weekend in the penultimate round of finals action. Gold Coast’s comeback win, after trailing to goals from Sergio van Dijk and Matthew Leckie, has the club reaching unprecedented heights in just their second season in the competition.
Big game: Without having tasted defeat at home all campaign, Brisbane Roar seemed assured of advancing to the championship decider with the security of a 2-0 first-leg away win at the Central Coast Mariners in the bank. The Mariners however leapt to a 2-0 half-time lead before an injury-time equaliser from Brazilian Henrique not only guaranteed their passage, but left a proud record unblemished.
Headline-grabber: Prolific New Zealand Shane Smeltz scored a double for Gold Coast United, including a stunning long-range effort, to demonstrate that he has lost none of his sharpness after recently returning from disappointing spells in China and Turkey.
In Qatar, front-runners Lekhwiya maintained the lead after outmuscling hosts Al Wakra 3-1 while Al Arabi defeated Al Sadd 2-0 to move up to second at the expense of Al Gharafa, who conceded four unanswered goals against Qatar SC on Thursday. Meanwhile, fifth-placed Al Rayyan received a morale-booster ahead of their AFC Champions League opener against Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab by defeating strugglers Al Khor 1-0 at home.
In Thailand, Muang Thong United find themselves in the unaccustomed position of being midtable after two rounds. The new giants of Thai football, and winners of the last two league crowns, played out a scoreless draw at Bangkok Glass over the weekend. With their first match postponed due to AFC Champions League qualifying commitments, the champions sit three points off Buriram PEA who lead on goal difference despite being held 1-1 at home by Police United.