Asian Champions League 2013 – after Matchday 4

Since I don't post pictures of Socceroos often.

Since I don’t post pictures of Socceroos often.

North Korea. What about ’em, eh? Making Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese forget to hate each other? Imagine how dreadful it is for Japanese teams and supporters to make away trips to China and Korea. But well, in the current vicious (by 21st century standard) stadium atmosphere in Europe, thank the Lord any spat between a Korean and a Japanese on the pitch can be solved by a double yellow card. The last time Japanese players had laser beam pointed at them was in Jordan (still, no excuse for me to miss my penalty kick, said Yasuhiro Endo).

The amount of Korean and Australian…and even Japanese…players in Gulf/Red Sea clubs has attracted my attention. Kwak Tae-hwi (formerly Ulsan) in Al-Shabab Riyadh. Go Seul-ki (formerly Ulsan) in El Jaish Doha. Shin Hyung-min (formerly Pohang) in Al Jazira Abu Dhabi. Nam Tae-hee (formerly Valenciennes) in Lekhwiya Doha. Mark Bresciano and Harry Kewell in Al Gharafa Doha. Takayuki Morimoto in Al Nasr Dubai. Alex Brosque in Al Ain. And Yoo Byung-soo in Al Hilal.

Which should make watching the AFC Champions League less stressful than used to be. In the end a Korean will still lift a trophy. Of course, it’s not always painless, as experienced by Lee Jung-soo when he, uhm, disagreed with his club’s gameplay against Suwon in 2011. Now he’s still in Al Sadd since the other option was worse – Guangzhou Evergrande.

Al-Shabab Riyadh: Passed Group A. Kwak Tae-hwi is a starter and played full time in all the four matches.

El Jaish: Runner ups of Group A with Iran’s Tractor Sazi on their tails. Go Seul-Ki performed quite poorly – subbed out twice and was also receiving yellow cards twice.

Al Jazira: On the verge of going out, almost. Two draws and two losses. Shin Hyung-min played in all matches.

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Lekhwiya: Tight race with Pakhatkor. Nam Tae-hee has scored six goals in the league (his best record), but yet to score in Asia. A starter who is consistently subbed out.

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Al Gharafa: Trying to keep up with the dominating Al-Ahli, although they are blessed with the unexpected terrible performance of Sepahan. Mark Bresciano has played twice in the competition, while Harry hasn’t (can he, legally?)

Al Nasr: Already out with four losses. In the team, Morimoto faces tough competitions from Bruno Correa (ex-Sepahan and Incheon) and locals Humain Abdulla Abbas, Hassan Mohamed, and Younis Ahmad. Goes without saying that Al Nasr’s main forward is Giuseppe Mascara. Here’s the twist – Morimoto has scored three times in Asia, in the playoff against Lokomotiv Tashkent, and then in losses to Al Ahli and Al Gharafa. League-wise, his kill rate is five goals out of seven games.

Wish list: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

Wish: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

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Al Ain: Neck to neck to championship’s regular Al Hilal, and still can overtake Esteghlal. Alex Brosque is enjoying stable position as wingman to Asamoah Gyan and has scored two goals – but not against Esteghlal.

Al Hilal: The only reason I’m glad there’s Saudi League in FIFA 13. The only team capable to bring 50 thousand spectators into an ACL match. Yoo Byung-soo seems to be a sub option behind veteran Yasser Al Qahtani and Wesley, and he’s yet to make a mark as a super sub after coming out from the bench three times.

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FC Seoul: Top performers from Korea with patchy records (two wins, a draw, a loss). Cha Du-ri is now a seat warmer, Mauricio Molina is showing his age, and Japanese Sergio Escudero is settling quite well. The team rely on Dejan Damjanovic, Ha Dae-sung, and Adilson.

Buriram United: The rise of Southeast Asian football? They hold themselves quite well and are having a Mexican standoff with Sendai, which they held 1-1 in the cold north. Defenders Charyl Chappuis is the first half-Westerner Thai footballer and he plays well. And try to pronounce this Swiss sub – Chitchanok Xaysensourithone.

Vegalta Sendai: Qualification to playoff still not sure, but respect should always be given to these brave men. The goalscorers (three so far, same with Buriram) are the club’s most recognizable name – North Korean Ryang Yong-gi, Wilson, and 35 year old Atsushi Yanagisawa. Shingo Akamine is yet to show his magic this season.

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Guangzhou Evergrande: You know they are at it again. The big question is can they reach the semi-finals. Huang Bowen is back in China and Dario Conca is still probably the best number 10 in Asia (well he’s number 15). Muriqui is the current top scorer in Asia, while in China he is challenged by Guangzhou midfielder Elkeson (not playing in ACL). Lucas Barrios, who could become a flop in China, has scored against Urawa Reds.

Jeonbuk: One win, three draws. Bad records for Jeonbuk. Especially their defense. Choi Eun-seong doesn’t only look old – he’s 42. Central Coast alumni Alex Wilkinson is still settling in. Jeonbuk are supposedly to be scary with Eninho, Kim Jung-woo, Kevin Oris, and Lee Dong-gook. They should have been.

Urawa Reds: The most popular clubs in Japan are back, in regular shape – battered and bruised. 21 year old Genki Haraguchi is striving to graduate into Samurai Blue, while Shinzo Koroki is drifting away from chance to wear the national jersey. They will not pass the group stage. Hopefully Haraguchi can play in Europe in three years time.

Muangthong United: Well, they do what they can. And yet with a point, they still have chance to qualify, due to Jeonbuk’s disappointing form.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

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Pohang Steelers: Same with Jeonbuk – one win and three draws. They are all-Korean this year, without any famous name. Surprisingly, they are doing well in the league, thanks to midfielders Cho Chan-ho, Lee Myeong-ju, and Hwang Jin-sung. Hwang Sun-hong legend in the making will depend on how they add up against Beijing, but certainly Hiroshima are no threat for them.

Beijing Gouan: They have Frederic Kanoute.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima: Turned out Hiroshima are not Asia-ready. Shusaku Nishikawa still have far to go before he can challenge Eiji Kawashima, and Mihael Mikic is never good enough. The biggest problem with Hisato Sato is that he seems to score only against Japanese keepers – a good argument against his return into the national team. And yes, I remember that he scored three goals in last year’s Club World Cup. Once against Al Ahly and twice to…Urawa. Well.

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Kashiwa Reysol: I thought that Yokohama Marinos deserved the Emperor Cup better. I take it back. Their Brazilian spice still kicks. This time it’s Cleo, who played for Evergrande, and old timer Leandro Domingues. This is also a great springtime for Masato Kudo.

Central Coast Mariners: Another bad year for Australian football, with Kewell rather be unemployed than playing in the A-League. There are, however, glimmer of hopes for the Socceroos from Matthew Ryan and Mitchell “Duke” Duke.

Suwon Bluewings: High maintenance, low returns. Three 0-0 matches. With Jung Sung-ryong, Eddy Bosnar, Kwak Hee-ju, Kim Do-heon, Oh Jang-eun, Jong Tae-se, Stevica Ristic, and Dzenan Radoncic, Suwon still don’t know how to win. A failed Samsung product.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.