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The winner takes it all

22 Jun 2009(Mon)

No sooner has the action in J1 got going again after a four-week early summer break, than the focus moves swiftly back towards the Asian stage. This year’s revamp of the AFC Champions League may have ultimately only added three more teams to the total of 29 that competed last season, but with a greater concentration of quality throughout, the newly-inserted round of 16 is perhaps the most fascinating innovation of all. Whereas it was only the top team in each of last year’s seven groups that survived into the knockout stages – alongside 2007 champions Urawa Reds – the 2009 tournament has offered a second chance to the runners-up as well, but instead of the usual two-legged format, this new round consists of pure, single-match cup ties, all played at the homes of the eight group winners.


The new system has already produced some shock results. With the competition still divided into west and east sections until the quarter-finals, the four West Asian last 16 matches were played in May before the international break, and only one of the region’s group winners were able to turn home advantage and a better past record into a place in the last eight. Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia had won four and drawn two of their six Group A matches to finish on 14 points, a tally second only to Gamba Osaka’s 15 in Group F, but after a 0-0 draw with Group C runners-up Umm-Salal in Riyadh, it was the Qatari side that eventually won through on penalties. Another Saudi outfit, Al-Ettifaq, went down at home to Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan, whose Tashkent neighbours Bunyodkor travelled to Iran and successfully eliminated Group B winners Persepolis. Al-Ittihad are the sole remaining group winners from the west, having navigated their way past fellow Saudi opponents Al-Shabab.


The proximity to the end of the international break adds a further element of intrigue to the four last 16 matches in the East Asia section to be played this Wednesday. A surprise 2-0 defeat at home to Pohang Steelers in their final first round match meant that Kawasaki Frontale were the only J. League representatives not to finish on top of their respective groups, and set up a visit to Gamba Osaka that neither team will have wanted. Gamba may have cruised through the group stage with five successive wins, but their domestic form has been rather less consistent. With leading scorer Leandro and Japan star Yasuhito Endo on the sidelines, and both Akira Kaji and Takahiro Futagawa feeling their way back from injuries of their own, an insipid performance against Albirex Niigata on Saturday was Gamba’s third successive home defeat in all competitions. Frontale were able to ease back into action by beating bottom club Oita Trinita 2-0, and having found their away form with good wins at Urawa and FC Tokyo before the break, Takashi Sekizuka’s side may fancy their chances of improving on a record at Banpaku that reads three losses and a draw since their return to J1 in 2005.


A 1-0 defeat at home to struggling JEF United Chiba on Saturday was hardly ideal preparation for Nagoya Grampus ahead of the arrival of Korean champions Suwon Samsung Bluewings, who thrashed Kashima Antlers 4-1 in their opening ACL match this year, but currently languish in 11th place in the 15-team K-League after a disastrous start to the 2009 campaign. Kashima did, of course, gain revenge with a 3-0 victory in the return meeting, but their clash with FC Seoul this week is a real date with destiny for the Antlers when their recent history is considered. Two consecutive domestic titles have been overshadowed by continental success for other Japanese teams – denying Kashima the right to play in the FIFA Club World Cup in the process – and as Gamba enjoyed three straight wins over Adelaide United last autumn, fans in Ibaraki Prefecture will have been scratching their heads as to how their side could have possibly fallen to the Australians in the ACL quarter-finals.


This year, the cushion that Kashima have built up at home allows them to shift greater focus towards that elusive first title in Asia. Current form suggests they may already be the region’s finest, but the winner-takes-all pressure of the last 16 could yet prove the toughest hurdle they have to overcome.

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Its opening up at the top :-) Gamba needed three points, though, to stay in it :-( Anyway, just wondered where you are (Osaka, I presume!?) and if you wanted the odd game now and again... I'm in Kobe and could help? I'm at most Gamba home games..... let's say hello (again?).
Alan kobesamurai

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