Leaders stumble, contenders shine
There were mixed fortunes for the frontrunners across a number of Asian leagues over the weekend, mostly notably in Japan where the possibility of a two-horse race is now a distinct possibility following costly defeats for champions Nagoya Grampus Eight and Yokohama F Marinos. It was a similar story in Iran where leaders Esteghlal and Saba Battery returned home from road trips without any points to show for their endeavours. In Uzbekistan, glamour club Bunyodkor were finally defeated just when an unbeaten league campaign was honing into view.
FIFA.com's weekly wrap also takes a look at new champions in China PR, the fledgling season in Qatar, and at Thailand, where former Liverpool and England striker Robbie Fowler made his coaching bow.
Japan J.League: Quartet splits in two
Gamba Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol both took a jump on their rivals with the other long-term title contenders, Nagoya Grampus Eight and Yokohama F Marinos, slipping to defeat. Gamba retained their one-point advantage at the top thanks to a 1-0 home victory over Urawa Red Diamonds, with Lee Keun-Ho the match-winner. A lone strike from Masato Kudo gave second-placed Kashiwa Reysol a win by the same scoreline at seven-time champions Kashima Antlers, despite playing the entire second half with ten men after the dismissal of Park Dong-Hyuk. Yokohama’s title hopes were dealt a severe blow following a 4-2 defeat at struggling Albirex Niigata, as were the prospects of champions Nagoya, who fell 2-0 at Shimizu S-Pulse.
Big game: Vegalta Sendai's 2-1 win over Cerezo Osaka was their fifth in a row and lifted them just six points off third-placed Nagoya.
Headline-grabber: Bottom-side Avispa Fukuoka enjoyed a breakthrough weekend by recording their opening away victory, as well as their first back-to-back wins of the season. Their 2-0 triumph at Omiya Ardija gives the club an outside chance of survival, although they are still 11 points from safety.
Korea Republic’s K-League: Suwon begin charge as rivals fall
Jeonbuk Motors crushed ten-man Sangju Sangmu 5-1 to maintain a five-point lead over Pohang Steelers, who had defeated Jeju United 2-1 to keep up the pressure at the top. Suwon Bluewings leapfrogged into third place after a 1-0 win at home against arch-rivals FC Seoul. Elsewhere, Chunnam Dragons drew 1-1 at Gangwon, while Busan I'Park slumped to a 1-0 defeat at home against Gyeongnam.
Big game: Having beaten Seoul 2-0 on the opening day in March, Suwon sought to pip the capital club to third with a home victory on Monday. The evenly-contested match seemed to be heading for a goalless draw until Stevica Ristic put the hosts ahead on 78 minutes to complete the Bluewings' double over their opponents.
Headline-grabber: Lee Dong-Gook and Lee Seung-Hyon bagged braces as Jeonbuk roared to a 5-1 victory over Sangju.
Iran’s Pro League: Stumble by frontrunners opens up table
Esteghlal lost top spot after falling to a 4-2 defeat at Malavan, their second loss in their last three matches. The result saw the Tehran side edged out of first place on goal difference by Teraktor-Sazi who were 3-1 victors over Mes Kerman. Also holding down a share of the lead are third-placed Saba Battery who fell 2-0 at Persepolis, with the Tehran giants now sitting in midtable after making a return to form in recent weeks.
Big game: Sepahan bounced back from the disappointment of their midweek AFC Champions League exit with a resounding 4-0 victory at Saipa to move to fifth, five points off the pace.
Headline-grabber: Founeke Sy moved third in the league’s top-goalscorers list with a double in a 2-0 win for Sanat Naft at Rab Ahan. The 25-year Mali international has now scored six goals and sits behind only Naft Tehran’s Iman Mousavi and Esteghlal’s Farhad Majidi.
Just one match was played in China PR over the weekend, allowing the spotlight to remain on Guangzhou Yiyao who secured their maiden title last Wednesday with four rounds remaining. The Cantonese side became the first newly-promoted club to take the crown following their comfortable 4-1 midweek victory over Shaanxi Chanba, while second-placed Beijing Guoan drew 1-1 away to Shandong Luneng. Gao Lin scored a brace for Guangzhou, while there were also goals for Zheng Zhi and big-money Argentinian import Dario Conca in the landmark victory. Meanwhile on Sunday, Changchun Yatai moved into the third and final AFC Champions League berth with a 2-1 win on the road against Tianjin Teda, pushing Liaoning Whowin into fourth.
In Qatar, AFC Champions League semi-finalists Al Sadd received a major boost heading into their last-four continental meeting with Suwon Bluewings later this month by claiming an equal share of top spot. Aly Hasan Afif scored the only goal in a home victory against Al Ahli to leave Sadd alongside Al Khor and holders Lekhwiya on seven points, with the latter in front on goal difference despite drawing 1-1 with Al Jaish. Al Khor now lies third following their goalless draw with Al Rayyan. Meanwhile, Qatar SC recorded their first win of the season at the third attempt, with national team striker Sebastian Soria bagging a hat-trick against Al Khritiyat in a 3-0 victory.
In Uzbekistan, local giants Bunyodkor finally lost their season-long unbeaten record after suffering a surprise 1-0 defeat at midtable Shurtan Guzar. Aleksandr Merzlyakov’s first-half strike was the difference as the champions’ run came to an end with just four matches of the campaign remaining. Bunyodkor, however, seem certain to collect their fourth-straight crown with second-placed Nasaf, who are 11 points off the summit, having their match postponed due to their upcoming AFC Cup semi-final. Third-placed Pakhtakor, whose coach Ravshan Haydarov resigned during the week, battled to a 1-0 win against bottom-placed Sogdiana Jizzakh.
Finally to Thailand where ambitious Muang Thong United appointed legendary Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler as their third coach of the season, with former Vietnam boss Henrique Calisto departing following the club’s midweek AFC Cup exit. Fowler’s first match at the helm saw national team stars Teerasil Dangda and Nataporn Phanrit on the scoresheet as Muang Thong claimed a 3-1 victory at Samut Songkhram. However, despite leapfrogging into second, the champions remain nine points off leaders Buriram PEA who, like third-placed Chonburi, were inactive over the weekend.