A Parochial Guide to 2015 AFC Champions League and AFC Cup

A good example of how parochial the English media can be is by referencing the Prime Minister of Denmark as “The wife of Labour candidate for Aberavon” or “Wife of (Neil) Kinnock’s son“. This blog will also get parochial and view the Asian version of UEFA Champions League and Europa League (hmm…there’s simply no classical Asian word for “Asia”, is it?) from Japanese, Korean, and Australian perspectives. Specifically if those West Asian teams have Korean players in them, otherwise I will just ignore them. Begin with the Champions League.

Ask me about Riga’s best lounges.

Group A

Hot hot hot. Al Nassr, Lekwhiya, Persepolis, Bunyodkor. Only Al Nassr, however, have won a continental cup in 1998 (Cup Winners’ Cup) and played in FIFA Club World Cup. It has no one interesting, unlike Lekhwiya, whose no 10 is Nam Tae-hee and whose coach, Michael Laudrup, is browsing London and Tokyo city guides (great life, Mike). Persepolis predictably have only Latinos, but what about Bunyodkor? Their number 9 is Minori Sato, a journeyman who had lived in United States, Mexico, Latvia, and Belarus! And Keisuke Honda complained about how pampered Japanese footballers are.

Group B

Hmm…Pakhtakor, Al Shabab, Al Ain, and Naft Tehran. Just Al Ain with Lee Myung-joo, then (those clever Korean attacking midfielders! Choose to play in the Gulf when you want to get out of Korea, paid well, and not benched!)

Group C

Foolad, Lokomotiv, Al Hilal, and Al Sadd. Al Hilal have Kwak Tae-hwi while Al Sadd have Lee Jung-soo. Interesting though, that Al Hilal’s new forward is Georgios Samaras, on loan from West Brom.

Group D

Al Ahli Dubai, Tractor, Nasaf, Al Ahli Jeddah. Nice, two clubs with the same name will face each other. Dubai’s winger is Luis Jimenez, who played for Internazionale and West Ham and is listed as a Palestinian (since Dubai want to show that they are Asian-friendly and therefore can buy another Latino, and yay, Jimenez has Palestinian background). Meanwhile, their attacking midfielder is Oussama Assaidi, who played four matches with Liverpool. If AFC rejects Jimenez’ Asian status, then there’s ex-Jeonbuk midfielder Kwon Kyung-won.

Group E

East side – home to deserted stadiums, mediocre Japanese performance, interesting Chinese and Thai performances, and Australian away supporters who are proved to be more interested in local culture than other Asians are. Jeonbuk have familiar faces like Eninho, Alex Wilkinson, and Lee Dong-gook. Shandong have Diego Tardelli, who believed he should have been called for Brazil in World Cup 2014 (aren’t you glad now, Diego?). Vietnam again proves it’s the second best footballing nation in Southeast Asia with Becamex Binh Duo. Finally, there’s Kashiwa who wasted 2 hours last week to dispatch Chonburi. They are, though, still the best J. League team in the ACL for the past two years.

Group F

Gamba’s back, now with forward Shingo Akamine. They are with Seongnam FC (now Moonies-free), Buriram United, and Guangzhou R&F. Buriram’s New Zealander’s forward, Kayne Vincent, is half-Japanese. They also have Go Seul-ki, who lifted the 2012 ACL cup with Ulsan. Guangzhou R&F sport Park “Dokdo is Ours” Jong-woo and Jang Hyun-soo, who ironically played with FC Tokyo during the London Olympics.

Group G

Brisbane Roar have the usual names of Michael Theo, Henrique, Matt McKay, and Thomas Broich. Urawa maintain their all-Japanese look, with the exception of Slovenian forward Zlatan Ljubijankic. Same goes with Suwon Bluewings with Jung Sung-ryong, Oh Jang-eun, Jong Tae-se, and a trio of Brazilians. Beijing have no selling names but have a Swede with interesting name: Erton Fejzullahu (he’s Albanian Kosovar, like Adnan Januzaj).

Group H

G.E.T. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, presented by Evergrande Real Estate Group and Alibaba Group. Kim Young-gwon is still there, and so are Elkeson and Rene Junior. Their new Brazilian is Ricardo Goulart, bought for 15 million euros from Cruzeiro. Western Sydney can expect another sleepless night in Guangzhou, and extra love for their two Japanese, Yusuke Tanaka and Yojiro Takahagi. At least they can see Tokyo again, well, its mirage, from the deer island of Kashima. The Antlers are same as always, with Masashi Motoyama, Koji Nakata, Davi, and Mitsuo Ogasawara. It’s like 2005 all over again. Finally: FC Seoul. Same – Kim Yong-dae, Kim Jin-kyu, Mauricio Molina, and Cha Du-ri. I hope Japanese Sergio Escudero stays with Seoul, although its fans prefer to take him as a Spaniard.

So yeah, ready for another disappointments and relief? Now move on to the cheaper brand of AFC Cup, which is more interesting for Southeast Asians and Hong Kongers.

Group A-D

Nothing’s important. Ignore the rumor that porn star Akari Asahina is the manager of Al Wahda Damascus. Certainly one of these West Asian clubs will lift the trophy again, like from Bahrain or Kuwait or Iraq.

Group E

Bengaluru have India’s darling Sunil Chhetri, Josh Walker, whose virtual version was available from FIFA 08 (Bournemouth) to FIFA 13 (Scunthorpe United), and Wayne Rooney’s long-lost brother Sean. Persipura retain many Papuan football stars like Boaz Solossa and Ian Louis Kabes. Warriors prove the sorry state of Singaporean football by only having 20 players, including four foreigners and two naturalized Singaporeans. Yes, what a football crazy nation. Maziya from Maldives surprisingly have a Spanish, Bulgarian, and Japanese (why surprising? No man would refuse working on a resort island where there are places where the sharia doesn’t apply for them).

Group F

Kitchee: five Spanish, two Brazilians, a Nigerian, two Koreans, a Canadian, and four naturalized Hong Kongers who grew up in Ghana and China. Nice. Besides two Nigerians, East Bengal have Australian Milan Susak, who played in Serbia, Germany, Indonesia, China, Iran, and UAE. Now this is one Mr. International. And also New Zealander Leo Bertos, who played in NZ’s three draws at 2010 FIFA World Cup. Like Kashima, Johor maintain the spirit of 2005 by playing Luciano Figueroa, Argentina’s hero of Copa America 2004 and FIFA Confederations Cup 2005. Sadder than Warriors, Balestier only have 19 players.

Group G

Yadanarbon win the Club with Interesting Players’ Names award, thanks to Okpechi Happiness, Boakay Foday, and Djedje Djawa (who should have played in Java). South China prove that globalization happens with Hong Kongers Jack Sealy and Michael Campion and Irish Sean Tse. And also Daniel McBreen, 2012-13 A-League golden boot winner. Global become the first Filipino team in the championship, and you can get Japanese overload with names like Daisuke Sato, Hikaru Minegishi, and John Kanayama. And there are two actual Japanese players besides those locals. Finally, Pahang make dream comes true for Pakistani and Jamaican football fans dreaming of seeing their nationalities represented in the world-famous AFC Cup.

Group H

My hometown team, Persib Bandung, are here. Sadly nothing is really interesting from this group (group of bore? Lucky you, Persib), besides the fact that Lao Toyota’s Japanese midfielder Dan Ito has played in 16 Asian countries over the last 15 years.

Milan Susak: Friend with Dan Ito on Flickr?

What, you want group prediction? I’m too afraid to make one. It’d be so funny though if GET don’t get the first place.

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.