The 2015 AFC Champions League semi-final match-ups are complete with former winners Guangzhou Evergrande, Gamba Osaka and last year’s losing finalists Al Hilal all sealing their respective return to the last four, while Al Ahli booked their maiden appearance in the semi-final stage. By doing so, the former pair set up an intriguing semi-final meeting while the latter two are pitted against each other.
In the process, a 1-1 home draw against Kashiwa Reysol saw Luiz Felipe Scolari's Guangzhou emerge 4-2 aggregate winners and Gamba edged out Jeonbuk Motors 3-2 in an enthralling game to progress despite playing out a goalless tie in the first leg. Al Hilal, meanwhile, added a 2-2 draw at Lekhwiya to their 4-1 first-leg win and elsewhere, Al Ahli followed up their first-leg 1-0 away triumph with a 2-1 victory at home. FIFA.com takes a closer look at these enthralling clashes, with a spot at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015 now within reach for the four semi-finalists.
Gamba Osaka 3-2 Jeonbuk Motors
In what proved to be a breathtaking decider, hosts Gamba ran out 3-2 winners in dramatic fashion. Indeed, both teams created magical moments, which underlined their class as former champions. However, it was Gamba who, despite missing top-scorer Takashi Usami and facing a must-win scenario, relived the resilience and stamina that had seen them overcome a slow start and finish as unlikely group winners.
Once again, Kenta Hasegawa’s home side had to recover from a poor start after gifting the visitors an early spot-kick. To the pleasure of the home crowd, however, Gamba drew level a minute later with Brazilian forward Patric sending the ball into an open net. Midfielder Shu Kurata made it 2-1 with a long-range effort on 76 minutes as the game began to look promising for the hosts.
Jeonbuk coach Choi Kanghee soon sent on towering forward Urko Vera in search of an equaliser. His tactical gamble paid dividends when the Spanish front man outjumped his marker to plant home a header two minutes from time. Jeonbuk looked destined to progression but Gamba were not giving up. And substitute Koki Yonekura broke the visitors' hearts with a stoppage-time strike as Gamba sealed their return to the semi-finals for the first time since lifting the trophy back in 2008.
The other attractions
Guangzhou maintained their undefeated record against Kashiwa with a 1-1 draw. The home side pressed hard from the outset but after weathering the early storm by the hosts, the Japanese visitors reduced their first-leg 3-1 deficit when Brazilian striker Cristiano broke the deadlock with a header on 13 minutes. Guangzhou responded quickly through Huang Bowen’s volley, connecting will off of Zheng Zhi's pinpoint pass. The visitors threw everything forward in the closing stages but Guangzhou held on to their aggregate advantage.
Having won the first leg comfortably at home, Al Hilal consolidated their aggregate lead on 26 minutes with new Brazilian acquisition Carlos Eduardo opening the scoring with his third goal in two matches. Ismail Mohammed struck the equaliser before the break, though Chico Flores made it 2-1 to Lekhwiya on 76 minutes as the hosts salvaged a glimmer of hope. However, the visitors grabbed the equaliser through Digao with three minutes left and advanced to the semi-finals for the second year in a row.
Elsewhere, Al Ahli continued their history-making run by knocking out tournament debutants Naft Tehran with a 3-1 aggregate scoreline. Rodrigo Lima struck the opener with a long-rang effort before Ahmed Khalil doubled the lead shortly after the restart. Vahid Amiri would pull one back for the visitors but it proved nothing more than a consolation.
While celebrating their return to Asia's last four, Gamba fans are aware how indebted the team should be to captain Yasuhito Endo for the feat. Having steered Gamba to the Asian title seven years ago, the 35-year-old playmaker has continued to excel in this year's campaign during their path to the semi-final stage. The former AFC Player of the Year provided the leadership, determination and experience in the decider against Jeonbuk. Notably, his well-taken free-kick saw Jeonbuk's offside trap beaten as they grabbed the spirited equaliser before launching the move that ended in Yonekura’s match-winner.
6- The 1-1 tie at home marks Guangzhou's sixth AFC Champions League meeting against Kashiwa, from which the Chinese champions achieved four wins and two draws.
What they said
"Obviously, as a player, I don't really want to experience such a dramatic game like this. I'd prefer an easier win. But I have experienced games like this in my long career before and I know the fans will enjoy this," Gamba Osaka captain Yasuhito Endo.
Second leg results
15 & 16 September
Guangzhou Evergrande 1-1 Kashiwa Reysol (aggregate 4-2)
Lekhwiya 2-2 Al Hilal (aggregate 3-6)
Gamba Osaka 3-2 Jeonbuk Motors (aggregate 3-2)
Al Ahli 2-1 Naft Tehran (aggregate 3-1)