AFC Champions League reaches quarter-final stage
After a three-month hiatus, Asia's biggest international club competition resumes this week with eight teams from five countries vying for the AFC Champions League 2004 title.
While this year’s edition does have a fairly familiar look to last year’s inaugural tournament with three of the 2002-03 semi-finalists appearing again in the knockout stage, there are also a number of new faces that will be challenging for the honour of being crowned Asia’s best club.
The United Arab Emirates and Korea Republic are well represented at this stage of the competition with three Emirati sides and two Korean teams making it through. With clubs from the same country kept apart for this round, it is not too surprising that two of the four matches feature teams from the two nations as defending ACL champions Al Ain play Korean FA Cup winners Chonbuk Motors while K-League holders Seongnam Chunma take on surprise package Sharjah.
The third UAE side, Al Wahda, meet Uzbek champions Pakhtakor in another last eight tie, while China’s Dalian Shide, losing semi-finalists last season, meet Saudi giants Al Ittihad in perhaps the most enticing tie of the round.
Having been given a bye through the group stage of the AFC Champions League as the reigning champions, Al Ain make their long awaited debut in this year’s tournament on Tuesday as they host a Chonbuk side that emerged from a tough opening round group that included J.League outfit Jubilo Iwata, Chinese league champions Shanghai Shenhua and last year’s AFC Champions League runners-up BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand.
Chonbuk have enjoyed a successful season in the K-League this year, finishing runners-up in the first stage and currently lying second again in the second stage. With the Koreans currently in the middle of the season, they may have the advantage of being at optimum match fitness against an Al Ain team that captured their third straight UAE league title in May but are now trying to find their feet under new coach Alain Perrin, who has replaced fellow Frenchman Bruno Metsu.
Tuesday’s other fixtures brings together two of the leading contenders for this year’s title as Dalian entertain Al Ittihad in northeast China.
While Dalian strolled through a fairly easy first round group, Ittihad had to fend off a strong challenge from Iran’s Sepahan, who finished level on points with the Saudis but lost out on the basis of their head-to-head results.
Both sides have recently returned to action in their respective league after breaks for the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifying matches so the players should be fairly fresh for the AFC Champions League challenge.
Having strolled through their Uzbek league campaign thus far with 16 wins in 17 games, Pakhtakor face a fresh challenge when they visit Abu Dhabi to play Al Wahda on Wednesday.
Pakhtakor, who were beaten in the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League by BEC Tero last year, have lost four of the six away matches that they have played in the competition over the past year and will be hoping to get a good result at the Al Nahyan Stadium before the return fixture in Tashkent, where they have won all nine of their ACL games at the Pakhtakor Stadium.
Having knocked out Qatar’s Al Sadd and Iraq’s Al Quwa Al Jawiya in the group stage, Al Wahda will be looking to salvage something in the AFC Champions League after a poor league campaign last season in which they missed the championship playoff, finishing in a disappointing sixth place.
The remaining match on Wednesday sees Sharjah visiting Seongnam, looking to take their second big scalp in the AFC Champions League following their elimination of Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in the group stage.
Sharjah won just two matches last season to finish 11th in the UAE league but they turned a number of heads with their 5-2 victory over Al Hilal in May that sent the former winners of the Asian Club Championship and Asian Cup Winners’ Cup crashing out.
Seongnam, winners of the Asian Club Championship in 1995 and six-time K-League champions, have had a poor season domestically in the K-League and will be keen to make their mark in the AFC Champions League after bowing out in the group stage last season.
The quarter-finals of this year’s AFC Champions League are two-leg affairs with the return matches to be played on September 21 and 22.
AFC Champions League
Tuesday, September 14
Al Ain (UAE) v Chonbuk Motors (KOR)
Wednesday, September 15
Al Wahda (UAE) v Pakhtakor (UZB)