Rivalries and fresh hopes abound
It was very much a case of new seasons commencing, or the title race drawing to a close over the weekend across much of Asia and Oceania. In Korea Republic, Jeonbuk Motors finished top of the league standings, while in Japan one of the most exciting title runs-in for years continues.
In Australia, a host of derbies took place, as they did in India where the new season commenced. Fresh campaigns also kicked-off in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, while Diego Maradona’s Al Wasl are making the early-season running in United Arab Emirates.
Korea Republic’s K-League: Play-offs take shape
The penultimate round saw leaders Jeonbuk Motors crowned regular-season winners, as well as claiming home advantage in the championship final next month, thanks to a goalless draw against Daejeon Citizen at home. Runners-up Pohang Steelers also secured second place, and a semi-final berth, despite being held to a 1-1 draw at home by nine-man Chunnam Dragons. Suwon Bluewings and FC Seoul, battling for third place, are tied after their respective wins over Gwangju and Seongnam Chunma, with only a goal separating the arch-rivals. Elsewhere, Ulsan Horangi moved into fifth with a hard-fought victory over Busan I’Park, who nevertheless remain in good position to take the sixth and final ticket to the play-offs.
Big game: With sixth-placed Gyeongnam, Chunnam and Ulsan level on 42 points before the showdown at the Munsu Stadium, visitors Busan, on fifth with 43 points, could have sealed their place in the play-offs with victory. However, it was the hosts who had the last laugh as Go Seul-Ki struck the only goal of the game on 70 minutes to take the Tigers into fifth.
Headline-grabber: Shin Young-Rok made an emotional return to the Jeju Stadium, where he had collapsed during a league game against Daegu in May. In a pre-match ceremony on Saturday, the Jeju striker, who had recently recovered from the heart attack, received a standing ovation from the stands as he paraded around the stadium.
Australia’s A-League: Rivalries and tight contests
Round three of the fledgling A-League season saw three local derbies take place in the five-match schedule, helping the league draw its highest aggregate crowd for a single round. It proved to be another low-scoring weekend, however champions Brisbane Roar once again shone, seeing off Queensland neighbours Gold Coast United 3-0 and extending their unbeaten run to 31 matches. Joining Ange Postecoglou’s charges at the top with a perfect record are Perth Glory, who claimed a hard-fought 1-0 victory. A lone strike from Shane Smeltz was enough to see off the challenge of former club Wellington Phoenix.
Big game: Arguably the biggest local derby of the season took place as Melbourne Victory took on city rivals Melbourne Heart. Another bumper crowd was again on hand, this time just under 40,000, but star signing Harry Kewell was unable to help his team trouble the scorer, and the goalless draw leaves the Victory without a goal to date.
Headline-grabber: Nick Carle lifted Sydney FC to three much-needed points, with his late winner a deserved reward for an inspired display against Adelaide United, which also saw the midfielder crack the underside of the crossbar in the first half. The former Crystal Place man outshone team-mate Brett Emerton, who was forced from the field with cramp in the latter stages.
India’s I-League: Elite fail first test
The fifth edition of the I-League commenced on Saturday with a shock for champions Salgaocar who fell 1-0 against former winners Dempo. Last season’s golden boot winner Ranti Martins scored the all-important goal ten minutes from time in the glamour fixture of the opening round. There was similar disappointment for cup holders East Bengal who went down by the same scoreline to Churchill Brothers in Kolkata’s cavernous Salt Lake Stadium.
Big game: Mumbai FC were resounding 4-1 victors in the local derby against Air India. A tight contest gave way to a flurry of goals late on led by striker Sampath Kuttimani who scored an eight-minute brace.
Headline-grabber: Mohun Bagan’s Nigerian striker Odafa Okolie scored his first hat-trick for the club in the 3-1 comeback victory over Pailan Arrows. Okolie’s second-half treble helped the Kolkata side see off Pailan, who had held the lead for an hour.
The top-three all won in Japan with the finishing line now just four matches away. Kashiwa Reysol scored a vital 3-1 victory over Sanfrecce Hiroshima to remain top. Gamba are two points from the summit, despite a 5-0 scoreline against Montedio Yamagata, while defending champions Nagoya Grampus are a further point adrift after their 3-2 defeat of Omiya Ardija. At the other end of the table, former Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds put some much-needed breathing space between themselves and the relegation zone with their first win in nine outings; a 2-1 defeat of Yokohama Marinos. It was bad news, however, for Avispa Fukuoka who became the first team to be relegated when they went down 3-1 to midtable Albirex Niigata.
In China PR, newly-crowned champions Guangzhou Yiyao suffered their biggest defeat of the campaign in losing 5-2 at Jiangsu Sainty, despite sealing the C-League title three weeks ago. It was brighter news for Beijing Guoan who nailed down second spot and with it, qualification for next year's AFC Champions League, thanks to Joel Griffiths’ lone second-half strike at Tianjin Teda. At the other end, strugglers Shenzhen Ruby and Chengdu Blades are rooted to the bottom, five points from safety with just two rounds remaining.
In the United Arab Emirates, two quick goals inside the opening nine minutes saw seven-time champions Al Wasl edge hosts Bani Yas 2-1. Diego Maradona’s side now sit alone at the top of the standings as the only side with a perfect record after two rounds. Holders Al Jazira, meanwhile, conceded a late goal deep into stoppage time to share a 2-2 draw with Sharjah, but they have a slim hold on second courtesy of their 4-0 home win over Al Ahli in the season opener.
Competition heavyweights Auckland City and Waitakere United kicked-off the New Zealand season in spectacular fashion with one-sided victories, while Canterbury United joined the pair at the top with an equally impressive win. Oceania champions Auckland overwhelmed Waikato FC 5-1 - Manel Exposito and Emiliano Tade both scoring doubles - to narrowly lead Canterbury, who eased to a 4-0 win over ten-man YoungHeart Manawatu. Waitakere United were edged into third on goal difference after a 3-0 home win over Hawke’s Bay United.
In Papua New Guinea, champions, Hekari United saw off a strong challenge from newcomers Morobe Mining Bulolo United before triumphing 3-0 in Lae. Hekari, who will miss next weekend’s domestic action due to their opening OFC O-League fixture, have a slim margin at the top ahead of Gigira Laitepo Central FC and Besta United, who were both 2-0 victors.