Six things we learnt from AFC Champions League Group Stage

1. Qatar – numbers mean nothing

Like many things in Qatar, the Stars League can offer more than its neighbors. The payroll might not be as interesting as in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but Doha seems to be a more interesting place to live and has better football atmosphere. We’re talking about the Asian Cup and the World Cup host here (which, well, who knows, might get the fourth ticket to Brazil). Many Bahrain players move there to escape the political prosecution and complications, and supposedly, with a Qatari club as the defending champions, a Qatar club can go further than UAE’s, while the living condition is more pleasant than in Saudi.

Not so. All Qatari club, four of them, crashed. First, unlike Liverpool 2005, the champions Al-Sadd was not competing. They could be the third best club in the world after Kashiwa Reysol (okay, that’s not true), but they finished sixth in the 2010-11 Stars League season. They won’t compete in ACL next year either, finished fourth (the fourth ticket was taken by Emir Cup’s winners Al Gharafa).

So, Al Rayyan (Afonso Alves, ex-Middlesbrough) and Lehkwiya (Nam Tae-Hee) scored only two wins. Al Gharafa (Ze Roberto & ex-Urawa Edmilson) got three times draw – although facing Persepolis and Al Hilal would leave you a little chance of qualifying.  Al Arabi….certainly the worst. Six losses, four goals for against sixteen against.

I’ve said that there’s a ray of light shining for UAE since the Olympics qualification. It is, with Al Jazira topping Group A and Bani Yas overcoming Pakhtakor. Al Nasr and Al Shabab certainly crashed and ranked below their Qatari rivals, but the Emirates are still having in the game.

2. Can Saudi football redeem itself?

Certainly Saudi Pro League still have the two most fearsome clubs in Asia – Al Ittihad and Al Hilal. In the past both clubs could draw more than 30 thousands to an ACL match, although that’s not the case now. They are, however, are still powered by local players. In fact each of them has only two non-Muslim players – Paulo Jorge and Fabrice Ondama in Ittihad and Christian Wilhelmsson and Yoo Byung-Soo in Hilal, which are flourishing far away from La Coruna and Incheon.

Of course, club success can be powered by good management and national failures can be influenced by terrible FA administration, negative state intervention (including choosing a crappy or inflexible manager), and lack of motivation. It’s hard to describe nationalism in an absolute monarchy – Hegel had found it in the 1800s. Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Ittihad have the good chance to go to quarter finals (and eliminating UAE clubs if they do so), and certainly they aim to reclaim the champions title, last won by a Saudi side in 2005. If they can do it, then the FA have to follow up with the Asian Cup 2015 project.

 

3. Adelaide are still the only reliable Australian club in the ACL

In A-League, they can go from top 3 to bottom 3 in alternating seasons. Adelaide qualified to this year’s ACL through playoff. But their experience and flair against the northerners count year after year, while Brisbane and Central Coast prove that unlike the national team, Aussie clubs are not first rate (league and clubs managements included). Adelaide destroyed two former champions, Pohang and Gamba, and could become the favorites against Nagoya. Bruce Djite might fit as Australia’s Emile Heskey, but Dario Vidosic has my vote to be a Socceroo regular, and Sergio van Dijk is the best forward Indonesia has never had.

 

4. These are testing times for Korean teams.

Finally, the fallout of last year’s bribe scandals is here. Only Ulsan proved the quality of a Korean team, and Seongnam were lucky they were in an equally boring group with half of the group’s games ended in draws  (hey, draws without losses is something to be proud of. Just ask New Zealand fans). The supposedly exciting Pohang lost in competition to Bunyodkor (another sign of Uzbek resilience against the Japan-Korea block), while I’m bit ashamed of praising Lee Dong-Gook in my last post, seeing how Jeonbuk fell. It seems that the life and death of Jeonbuk are decided by how he’s doing on the match day instead of the teamwork Eninho, Kim Jung-Woo, and Kim Sang-Sik. Hugo Droguett is promising, but it seems like he needs more time to be a worthy partner to D.G.

This is the first time Korea fail to qualify at least three clubs since the current format introduced in 2009. And I take it as a failure. Jeonbuk’s failure certainly influenced by the rise of Guangzhou Evergrande, which deserves its own talking point, but even Seongnam were close to fail were it faced more aggressive opponents.

 

5. Guangzhou Evergrande continue its empire building

Manchester City teach that money can build your glory, earlier than what you expect. that’s what’s happened in Guangzhou, probably the best-run metropolis in China, which scouted and nurtured South Americans who really delivered. If Chelsea rely on Africans and Arsenal on continental Europeans (and Manchester United, at one point, on the Celts), then Guangzhou can be forgiven to rely on Muriqui, Cleo, and Conca for the attack and Paulao for the defence. Still, they needed six others Chinese to hold the line – and it’s good to see Cho Won-Hee redeemed after terrible times in Wigan and Suwon.

Sadly, pride rather than ambition might influence the replacement of Lee Jang-Soo with Marcello Lippi. Evergrande RE just wants to boast that it employs the Italian legend rather than trusting a coach that can ensure its domination in China and in Asia. Just like Roberto di Matteo’s employment in Chelsea is still not ensured even if he’ll win them the UEFA Champions League tonight. Owners, after all, care more about employing famous generals than having the most suited general for the club.

 

6. Gamba aside, J. League clubs are fine

Oh the irony. Newcomers FC Tokyo, previously the West Ham of Tokyo football, did really fine. Unstable Japanese champions Kashiwa passed the test with the last day’s coup against Jeonbuk (a plus point, if you consider Japanese stage fright against Korean teams). Nagoya followed Seongnam’s policy of two wins four draws, and yet they still prevailed against the supposedly threatening Brisbane and Tianjin.

So, why do we need to speak about Gamba? Perhaps because they are the former Asian champions. Perhaps they are used to be one the most strongest teams in Japan year in and year out. And now in the J. League, their mission for the season would be to escape relegation, just one month into the completion.

I’ll leave the deeper discussion about Gamba to my good friend Ben Mabley, who’s considering himself Osakan. I counted myself as a Gamba supporter, but then again, I don’t feel the passion I have when I’m supporting Manchester United (come on, I feel bad writing this). Maybe had I lived in Japan, I chose to live in Yokohama. Yay Marinos.

The importance of Lee Dong-Gook

내가 제일 잘 나가

I never like a bad boy. Just the nature of a geek who plays by the book. There is, however, a bad boy who I admire. Lee Dong-Gook. On Tuesday he scored twice in injury time to defeat the Manchester City of Asia, Guangzhou Evergrande (which just recruited Lucas Barrios, former team mate of Shinji Kagawa). Now Lee stands as the top scoring Asian in the ACL, along with Al-Hilal’s duo Naif Hazazi and Mohamed Abosaban (and Iranian Arash Borhani). In the K-League, he’s the only Korean and AFC player in the top five of goal scorers. He was the MVP and top scorer of 2011 ACL and the MVP of K-League 2011.

Yet, he does better service to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors than to the national team. Lee has played for Korea since World Cup 1998, and was the top scorer of 2000 Asian Cup (which was rough enough for Korea, finishing third in the group below China and Kuwait, before taking the third place of the tournament), scoring late goals against Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China, plus a hattrick against Indonesia. He failed to flourish in Werder Bremen, but scored the winning goal against Chile in the Sydney Olympics. A deep irony since Chile, Spain, and Korea all finished group stage with two wins and one defeat, and Korea had the worst goal difference (due to 0-3 damage done by Spain) while Chile had the best.

Enter Guus Hiddink for the 2002 project and he disliked D.G. He was powerful but was not fast or long-lasting – his assessment after the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Like his Japanese counterpart Takayuki Suzuki, he was seen as a “Lazy Genius” – he had the potential but didn’t work hard for it. So he was not in and Hiddink never regretted the decision, while Troussier was in despair after he omitted Shunsuke Nakamura and Naohiro Takahara was not available. In true bad boy fashion, Dong-Gook spent the glorious Korean summer drinking and tuning out of the tournament.

He got over the bitterness with the national service (Korean celebrities answer the draft when they think they’re over their prime) and returned to Pohang Steelers afterward. He scored goals in all but one Korea’s match in the 2004 Asian Cup, but unfortunately he was out-vicioused (this is not a word) by Ali Karimi who scored three against Korea. He led South Korea to qualify for Germany 2006, but World Cup rejected him again – injury failed him and Korea had to settle for Lee Chun-Soo, Ahn Jung-Hwan, Seol Ki-Hyeon (all veteran of 2002) and the young Christian hope Park Chu-Young.  After they went down to Switzerland, it was clear that Korea needed Lee Dong-Gook.

In his ninth year of service, Lee demonstrated why he was bad. The highlight of his contribution for 2007 Asian Cup was his carousing in Jakarta with unsung K-League hero Woo Sung-Yong and the darling of Muslim fans Lee Woon-Jae. He played for Middlesbrough so he escaped the club ban, but he was so disappointing in England and was remembered as a drunkard. The downfall seemed hard enough that he had to play for Moonie club Seongnam (which is a great club, but you have to pity any sane people who seeks employment there. As for the fans, I just assume that they love the city) and was still a flop.

And yet, Jeonbuk saved him. The credit might go to coach Choi Kang-Hee who wised him up. Right of the bat, he was not only becoming the top scorer of 2009 K-League, but also took Jeonbuk to win the K-League Championship for the first time. He never looked back again in the K-League and the ACL. It was a big disappointment that he failed to win the 2011 Champions League, but then he just recovered from injury.

The question is if Lee Dong-Gook is that good. He finally got his World Cup in 2010, as a sub, and he failed to impress. Added with his bad record in Germany and England, and the answer is he’s not good enough for global competition. But for Asian competition, the 33-year old can be said as the deadliest striker residing in Asia. His closest rival would be Ali Karimi. Joshua Kennedy is yet to shine in the ACL, and J. League clubs hardly have illustrious Japanese forwards in their Asian campaigns (Gamba’s Masato Yamazaki is unemployed – the closest thing to a good Japanese striker is Tokyo’s Kazuma Watanabe).

Lee Dong-Gook flourishes in a tournament where clubs in both West and East Asia are even more depended on South American and African forwards, while their best strikers are studying in Europe. Australia tried to buck this trend with no avail. Even so, he’s successful in both the Korean and the Asian fronts. He’s more than good for both. He’s the best for both leagues. He can’t deliver anymore to the Red Devils, but he deserves to be called a legend for the Mad Green Boys.

Nobody Respects ACL anymore. AFC included.

Boo

I used to dream that the Asian Champions League is like the European Champions League. Dramatic theme music (what’s the equivalent of the adaptation of Zadok the Priest? A martial march theme ala Red Alert‘s “Hell March“?), a non-alcohol, pan-Asian equivalent to Carlsberg (uh, Toyota?), several merchandises, build up on ESPN, and the romantic image of happy Asian blokes spilling their beers over the couch as they’re jumping merrily, anticipating the battle royale between Al Ittihad and Gamba Osaka. A post-match night of blood, sex, and barf in Doha might not be a bad idea either if everyone can make it in one piece back to Adelaide.

Instead I’m treated by Tuesday 5.30 pm broadcast from Jeonbuk or Shanghai, minus half-time analysis, which nobody else watches, including in the stadium. Perhaps the point of ACL is to decide which Korean (yes, should be Korean) team would book a place in FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. Don’t you want to see Nagoya and Suwon duke it out the day before Barcelona meet Sao Paulo?

AFC, of course, has the different dream. Let’s see…the top three men in the current administration is a Chinese president, an Australian VP, and a Malaysian general secretary. So you think it’s very unbalanced. No representation from the West. Sponsor-wise, it’s a balance of power between Japanese, Korean, and Qatari corporations.

So why the hell AFC considered the proposal to move ACL playoff schedule “in order to allow Middle Eastern nations extra time to prepare for the final round of World Cup qualifiers” ? They didn’t even bother to say “Western Asia” or “competing nations”. Japan rightfully protested. Nevermind that Japan could just rearrange its friendly fixture with Oman. ACL does have a crappy schedule – hectic group stage, then one-off Round of 16. And then nothing happens until September. And to make it even hectic, just for the sake of getting rid of it quickly, demonstrates that AFC simply does not respect the Asian Champions League.

What surprises me is that Japan is not supported by Korea and Australia. They also have their interests crossed by AFC, and to change schedule midway is just ridiculous. A cynical explanation for the puzzles is that despite the supposed balance of power, AFC seems to have a knack to make things uncomfortable for the big three of East Asia and to ensure some advantage could be taken by, in their words, Middle Eastern teams.

A little look on how the ACL could affect the Big Three. Australia is less affected – Matt Ryan is the only Central Coast player in the Socceroos, and he won’t replace Schwarzer anytime soon. The Socceroos can do without Erik Paartalu and Mitch Nichols, and only Dario Vidosic plays for Adelaide. Hm, I can see why they don’t complain.

Pohang Steelers are yet to make the backbone of Korean team – only Shin Hyung-Min represents it. Ulsan, on the other hand, can be busy. Kwak Tae-Hwi is now the national team’s captain, and Lee Keun-Ho and Kim Shin-Wook are important backup strikers (even Lee can become the second attacker besides Chu-Young). Seongnam contributes Yoon Bit-Garam. Jeonbuk. Ah. Lee Dong-Gook. Cho Sung-Hwan. Lee Seung-Hyun. And Kim Jung-Woo. They need to be successful on both fronts. They can just call it quit tomorrow and go on to their third defeat (as demonstrated by last weekend’s 2-3 loss to Daegu. DAEGU!), but that’s not Jeonbuk way.

So, ACL second stage could do harm to players playing for Jeonbuk and Ulsan, but not to Australia. Now, what about Japan?

New manager Masanobu Matsunami might propel Gamba to score its first goal in the ACL. Who knows. Definitely Japan need Endo and…euh…Konno. Yeah. As for Tokyo, only defender Kosuke Ota is on the national team, although I want to see more of their players tried out by Japan, especially Naohiro Ishikawa. As for Shuichi Gonda, it’s better for him to concentrate for the Olympics. Jungo Fujimoto from Nagoya certainly wants to make the break against the four European aces, and finally Kashiwa contribute defending pairs Naoya Kondo and Hiroki Sakai.

So, actually it’s KFA which is disadvantaged by the hectic schedule faced by their players, so they should have joined Japan in protest (yes, I need you two to try to get along sometimes. Please). Jeonbuk’s current shambles is nothing to do with the ACL, but if the AFC wants to wear and tear Korean teams on their ways to the final, this is one way to do it. Looking at the brighter side, now the Big Three is not depended anymore on players from the local league and is supposedly able to field two set of teams – a veteran team and a unit of young stars (although this is less true for Australia – ironically which never had problems with European-based champions previously).

Tomorrow I’ll still follow Tianjin v Nagoya. Because I love Asian football. But maybe the caveat should be planted on my post-it note from now on: if the quarter finals fixtures look crap, because the cup is.