Giants held amid tight margins
It was a poor weekend for the elite in Japan and China PR, where a host of shock results marked the opening of new seasons. It was a similar story in Australia, where the top three teams all failed to collect maximum points with the finishing line looming. The new season in Korea Republic is delivering goals and drama in equal measure, meanwhile, and FIFA.com also reviews the latest from New Zealand and Thailand.
Japan’s J.League: Few goals amid tributes
There were six victors in the opening round of J.League fixtures, although none were able win by more that one goal, suggesting the upcoming campaign will be as enthralling as last year's. Vissel Kobe claimed the opening honours to hold down first place by virtue of goals scored, thanks to an impressive 3-2 win at last year’s third-placed side, Gamba Osaka. Among the other winning teams were 2010 champions Nagoya, who battled to a 1-0 win against Shimizu S-Pulse, courtesy of a lone first-half penalty from 2011 J.League top goalscorer Josh Kennedy. Newly promoted FC Tokyo also showed they could be a serious threat with a 1-0 triumph at Omiya Ardija.
Big game: Surprise champions Kashiwa Reysol seemed set to end the round with a victory and a share of first place, only for Hiroyuki Taniguchi to bag a last-gasp equaliser for Yokohama F Marinos in a six-goal thriller.
Headline-grabber: A year on from the tragic earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan, the new season commenced with tributes across the nation. It seemed appropriate then that Vegalta Sendai, representing a region hit hard by last year’s disaster, kicked off on a winning note with a 1-0 victory against seven-time champions Kashima Antlers.
China PR’s C-League: Stunning opening for favourites
The long-awaited Chinese Super League season opened in surprising fashion, with a series of strongly-favoured sides dealt unexpected blows. Last season's runners-up Beijing Guoan fell 3-1 at newly-promoted Guangzhou R&F, while a stoppage-time strike by Rafa Jorda saw GuiZhou Renhe edge four-time winners Shandong Luneng 2-1 at home. Defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande, meanwhile, had star midfielder Dario Conca to thank for his brace in a comeback win against the visiting Shanghai Shenxin.
Big match: Having lost their midweek AFC Champions League opener at Ulsan Hyundai, Beijing commenced their domestic campaign against novices Guangzhou desperately seeking a morale-boosting win. Instead, they suffered another disappointing defeat against top tier new boys Guangzhou R&F.
Headline-grabber: Nicolas Anelka's eagerly anticipated debut with Shanghai Shenhua against the visiting Jiangsu Sainty failed to materialise due to a knee injury, much to the disappointment of over 20,000 home supporters, including former NBA star Yao Ming. The French star watched from the stands as his new team-mates could only muster a share of the spoils. Shanghai’s Joel Griffiths headed home in the second half to cancel out Aleksandar Jevtic's opener in a game largely dominated by the visitors.
Korea Republic’s K-League: Double delights and last-gasp heroes
Suwon Bluewings and Jeonbuk Motors recorded their second straight victories, over Incheon United and Daejeon Citizen respectively, with the Motors’ Hugo Droguett grabbing a late winner. Ulsan Horangi defeated Gyeongnam 2-1 at home to keep up the pressure at the top of the table, while both Seoul and Gangwon breezed past Chunnam Dragons and Daegu with 2-0 home wins. This year’s AFC Champions League participants Pohang Steelers and Seongnam Chunma came from behind to claim 1-1 draws with Gwangju and Sangju Sangmu respectively, with the latter snatching a point thanks only to a 95th-minute header from Vladimir Jovancic.
Big game: Incheon United became the tenth club in the K-League to open a purpose-built football stadium, but their party at the Sungui Arena was spoiled by an ex-United man. Montenegrin striker Dzenan Radoncic, now playing for Suwon, silenced the home crowd with his first goal of the season in the first half, before adding his second from the spot to lead the Bluewings to a 2-0 victory.
Headline-grabber: Having captained Jeju for the past two seasons – in the process helping to transform the unfashionable islanders into a formidable force - Gangwon’s Kim Eun-Jung has now delivered for his new club. While it had taken 13 matches for Gangwon to grab their first win last season, the former Korea Republic forward almost single-handedly gave the Gangneung outfit victory in their second attempt with a brace against Daegu.
The top three teams all failed to win in Australia, making for a four-way race to claim top spot with two rounds remaining before the finals. Central Coast Mariners somehow remain top despite stretching their winless run to four matches, and with just one win in their past seven outings. Graham Arnold’s charges were unable to overcome Perth Glory, nor 35 degree heat in the west, and fell to a 1-0 loss. Brisbane Roar moved within two points of the leaders but will be ruing an opportunity lost after being held 1-1 at home by a struggling Adelaide United, who had played in Uzbekistan just four days earlier. Wellington Phoenix, along with Perth, are five points off the pace, with the Kiwis drawing 1-1 at Melbourne Heart.
Canterbury United have secured second spot in New Zealand, thanks to a 2-1 win over Waitakere United, thus edging closer to a maiden OFC O-League qualification slot. With Auckland City having already shored up one spot, the Christchurch side will only miss out if Waitakere or Team Wellington goes on to win the play-offs from third or fourth respectively. Auckland were 3-1 winners at Otago United and will next weekend aim to achieve a new record by completing the regular season undefeated.
In Thailand, Chonburi kicked off 2012 with silverware by winning the Royal Cup final against in-form Buriram United, who had stunned Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol in midweek AFC Champions League action. Ahead of the league season opening next weekend, Chonburi equalised five minutes into stoppage time with a Ludovick Takam goal to draw 2-2, before triumphing on penalties to lift the cup for the fourth time in five years.