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.

Who will represent Japan and Korea?

Crest for Nagoya Grampus

I'm impartial

Ah, the final week. Everyone in teams contesting J. League and K-League championships have to be sure they are healthy up to the kick off time. That’s including minding where is the aftershave bottle and make sure that the meals they were eating have positive agreement with their bowels.

Start with the easier, Korea. Jeonbuk, Pohang, and Seongnam have got the tickets to next year’s ACL. Just like a good K-League season should be: leave nothing to Suwon & Seoul. Meanwhile, Ulsan…well, Ulsan have beaten both aforementioned team, plus Pohang for good measure, and will face Jeonbuk this Sunday in the K-League Championship. So it’s decided: Lee Dong-Gook, Kim Jung-Woo (welcome back, soldier), Mota, Kim Dong-Chan, Eninho, and Seol Ki-Hyeon will fight for the Korean revival (this year’s loss to Al-Sadd is too much) in 2012. Unless they are transferred out. Except if they are transferred out to another ACL competitor from Japan or Saudi Arabia. Or Qatar.

What matters most for me in this year’s FIFA World is for the Japanese champions to reach semi-final match against Santos and to win the Third Place match against Al-Sadd  ES Tunis. Who are the most fitting firm to pounce Auckland City 5-0 before handing down a devastating 2-1 defeat to Monterey and to prove that CONCACAF is ALWAYS below AFC?

Three clubs answer the call and they are only one point separated between them. Kashiwa Reysol have 68. Nagoya Grampus have 67. Gamba Osaka have 66. Marinos, having a good year, are 12 points below Gamba. So three out of Japanese representatives for ACL 12 are already determined. Fourth place goes to Emperor Cup’s winners, which will have its fourth round next month after Club World Cup 11 is over.

Kashiwa have it tough – they will face Urawa, the former Asian Champions now in the danger of going down to J. League Division 2. Which means that the good people of Chiba will be happy to ensure that the good people of Saitama will see  Tatsuya Tanaka becoming the top scorer of D2 in 2012.

Nagoya will also face Albirex Niigata in the northern country. Bruno Lopes is not Josh Kennedy nor Keiji Tamada, so Nagoya will also be victorious.

What about Gamba? They have the toughest matches of all the championship hopefuls – away trip to Shimizu. Even as Korean Lee Keun-Ho can save the day, both Gamba and Nagoya have to rely on a simple fact: That Urawa will defeat Kashiwa. Urawa will do it for sure so that they will survive in the Division One.

Which team has the right to represent Japan in the Club World Cup? I choose Nagoya. I want to see all the hottest Japanese representatives in Toyota and Yokohama: Fujimoto, Tamada, and Nagai. And of course, one of the best striker in Asia this year: Josh Kennedy. Or maybe that I always had soft spot for Nagoya, the city often forgotten behind the Kanto-Kansai duopoly.

 

Anyway, India just got pummeled 0-5 by Zambia in Goa.

Naturalization in Southeast Asia

The leagues are over in East Asia but there are still plenty of Asian football this December. The AFF Suzuki Cup group stage ends with some upsets: Favorite Thailand leave without a win, and supposedly non-footballing Philippines go to the Semi Finals undefeated. What happened?

‘Naturalization’ is a popular topic in Asian football. Despite the supposed less migrant-friendly societies, citizenship transfer of foreign born players are less controversial than it should in Asia. In modern times, Japan started it when Ruy Ramos and Wagner Lopes played for Japan in the 90s. In Korea, Valery Sarychev and Denis Laktionov became Korean citizens although in the end they never played for the Red Devils. Qatar has no qualm in recruiting Uruguayans and Brazilians.

Singapore was the pioneer in Southeast Asia when it opened path to foreign players in the S-League to play for Singapore. Nigerian born Precious and Agu Casmir, English born Jonathan Wilkinson and Daniel Bennett, and Chinese born Shi Jiayi did it for several reasons: They’ve married to Singaporeans and have children, they won’t be able to play for their national team, life’s better here, and so on. But after shocking Asia in mid 2000s, they might have been out of steam and looked less than impressive this month, getting away with a hard fought 2-1 win over Myanmar while held by Philippines and lost to Vietnam.

Now both Indonesia and Philippines do well with naturalized players. Cristian Gonzales have played in Indonesia for years and have an Indonesian family. He’s 34. Irfan Bachdim, now idolized as a pretty boy by middle class girls who usually skip local football, has Indonesian father and Dutch mother.

On the other hand, the Filipinos consist of several Filipino-looking men who have classy English surnames (e.g. Greatwich, Younghusband, or Etheridge). They study professional football in England and United States and the nutrition, training and experience there have rewarded them with the sharp edge in defeating Vietnam 1-0 and holding Singapore 1-1. Even Indonesia cannot take them easily despite having a double home advantages (the organizers deem Philippines to not having adequate ground for their home leg). Better for these Filipinos, they don’t have to ditch their father’s side citizenship, unlike in Indonesia (although they are aware they won’t be able to play for England or Iceland).

Of course, naturalization is difference with recruiting migrant kids. When the naturalization debate began in Indonesia, many people wrongfully thought that Zidane, Desailly, and Henry were ‘naturalized’ too, while in fact they grew up in France. Alessandro Santos graduated from Japanese high school and so were Tadanari Lee and Mike Havenaar. So far, Southeast Asia hasn’t had youth players who are born from migrants. Perhaps Singapore would have more half-Western players in the future, although this is still not the case in Thailand. Certainly, it would also help if more ethnic Indians and Chinese feel comfortable to become professional footballers in Singapore (which is still happening in Malaysia). Indonesia is still eager to find more European based players who have Indonesian parents, usually Moluccan-Dutch.

In Indonesia, the Red and White’s successive wins have overcome all the skepticism about the team’s quality, the new citizens, and the new coach. Even now people say that Gonzales and Irfan are ‘nationalist’ Indonesians who sing the anthem proudly. Still, the semi finals will just begin on Wednesday and more people going to get hurt when their enterprising team failed to reach the final. The expectation is very big on Indonesia’s side.

Asians on World Stage

Seongnam continue the tradition of Asian teams to qualify to the semi-finals of FIFA Club World Cup, after defeating host Al-Wahda 4-1. Goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong attracts the attention of FIFA.com as the only Asian player who are in two World Cups this year. Seongnam will take it easy against Internazionale but feel at advantage with Inter’s current confidence crisis.

Shinji Kagawa scores. Again. In Dortmund 2-0 win against Bremen. Another FC Seoul striker joins the Ligue 1 after Auxerre recruits Park Chu-Young’s successor Jung Ju-Gook. Park’s Monaco are on the edge of the relegation zone, while Auxerre do bit better on the 14th.

Asia Football Update – Korea is Still the Best. And so does Shinji Kagawa.

When South Korea put in four teams into the quarter finals of AFC Champions League, the prospect of all-Korean final was bright. Then three teams were shot down spectacularly, and after defeating Bunyodkor and former champions Pohang Steelers and Al-Hilal, Zob Ahan have become a new favorite. It was unbeaten in the playoff round, while Seongnam suffered losses from Suwon and Al-Shabab.

And then, Seongnam returned to its persistent and aggressive play, despite without Dzenan Radoncic. Hulking Australian defender Sasa Ognenovski fought his way through a scrimmage, and international defender Cho Byung-Kuk scored from a corner. Zob Ahan fought back through Mohammad Khalatbari’s header, but substitute Kim Cheol-Ho lifted the thriller in the 83th minute.  Mauricio Molina failed to get two extra goals that would place him as the top scorer (the award goes to Jose Mota of Suwon), but Sasa got the Best Player award.  East Asia has won the cup for the fifth year in the row, and the K-League has demonstrated its superiority over the J. League, Australia’s A-League, and Chinese Super League – at least for this season.

J. League

Time is running out for Kashima Antlers to chase Nagoya. Nagoya defeated Omiya 2-1, while veteran players Koji Nakata and Mitsuo Ogasawara (remember Japan/Korea 2002?) took Kashima to victory over Kawasaki, which got the early lead through Vitor Junior. Gamba Osaka defeated Hiroshima 2-0 through Lee Keun-Ho and Lucas, while Cerezo failed to catch up with its rival after being held by Yamagata 3-3. Shimizu overcame its bad form with decisive 5-0 thumping of Shonan Bellmare. The goalscorers were all-stars cast of Shinji Ono, Frode Johnsen, Jungo Fujimoto, and Shinji Okazaki.

 

China

The 2010 season is over.  Shandong ended the last round by hammering Shanghai 5-2, with Han Peng’s hattrick is supposedly to ensure his entry into the Asian Cup starting eleven. Dubier Riascos, however, still managed to score a penalty kick to secure his goal tally against Shandong, and Shanghai is still qualify for the 2011 ACL. Despite Ryan Griffiths single goal against Jiangsu, Beijing failed to overtake Shanghai and to qualify for Asia. Tianjin and Hangzhou are also going to Asia with 1-0 wins over Henan and Qiangdao respectively.

 

Australia

Who is Kosta Barbarouses? This Greek-New Zealander guaranteed another smiling week for Brisbane as Roars defeated Melbourne Heart 2-1, despite Gerald Sibon’s early goal. Barbarouses has appeared in all All Whites team since sixteen years old and have scored six goals since his debut in the A-League.  Number two Adelaide suffered to unexpected defeat in the hand of Newcastle 1-3, with a double from Marko Jesic. A product of Cool Britain, Robbie Fowler, scored a hattrick for Perth against Melbourne Victory (which got one back through Diogo Ferreira). Newcastle will face a tough test this Wednesday against Brisbane.

 

Indonesia

Persebaya Surabaya, a former giant of Indonesian football currently in the second division, held a charity match against a team of Dutch-Indonesian semi-pros – and lost 1-2. The match was held to promote the Indonesian Premier League, an opposition league designed to challenge the official Indonesian Super League.  The Indonesian Football Association complained to AFC and FIFA about the employment of Egyptian referee during the charity match.

A growing numbers of fans have no problem with the Premier League as they believe the FA is utterly incompetent in managing the national team. Indonesia canceled friendlies against Hong Kong and Philippines due to the explosion of Merapi volcano in southern Central Java, which ash fallout reached West Java. It was not the FA’s fault, but fans have contrasted the cancellation with the IPL’s success in inviting some Dutch (which again, are mercenaries who didn’t complain much about personal safety).

Overseas

Right, Shinji Kagawa. He is going to Barcelona, isn’t he? Maybe. Certainly clubs west of Germany and south of Netherlands are interested in this young Japanese, which scored again for Dortmund. Still, pundits agree that it’s better for Kagawa to finish this season with Dortmund – taking them to win the Bundesliga, the DFB Pok…(uh, they lost to Kickers Offenbach), and the Europa League (trailing behind PSG and Sevilla). Kagawa’s good, but there’s still Grafite, Gekas, and Gomez to overcome. And there’s still Blue Samurai in Qatar, hoping to win the AFC Asian Cup.

Tim Cahill scored again in the last minute, this time against Arsenal. Unfortunately, that was Everton’s only goal.

Two more games in the Russian Premier League, and Zenit St. Petersburg have become champions. Keisuke Honda’s CSKA Moscow still have Rubin Kazan breathing on their neck. Will Honda move westward in January?

A Japanese player, Kosuke Kimura, who has lived in United States since he was 19, took Colorado Rapids to the MLS Cup final after scoring against San Jose Earthquakes.

 

Asian Games

Bye-bye for host China in the Men’s Asian Games, after going down to a reinforced South Korea. World Cup veterans Park Chu-Young, Kim Jung-Woo, and Cho Young-Cheol showed Chinese goalkeeper Wang Dalei that it was alright to be angry (why does the link still have many ‘Asians eat dog’ comments?).  Hong Kong’s great performance (draw against UAE and wins over Uzbekistan and Bangladesh) ended after Oman beat them 3-0, while Iran’s quest for the gold continues after overcoming Malaysia 3-1. Uzbekistan bounced back by defeating Qatar and will challenge South Korea in the quarter finals.