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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.