After four months of high-level football, the AFC Champions League came to a standstill. Not the same can be said about the remaining eight clubs that still have a genuine chance of winning the prestigious Asian competition.
Four of them, all located in Western Asian, are still competing in their domestic leagues. Among them, Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande has faced major changes since the quarter-final qualification. Not long after eliminating South Korean side Seongnam FC in the Round of 16, coach Fabio Cannavaro surprisingly announced his resignation. The Chinese moved quickly and hired 2002 World Champ Luiz Felipe Scolari as their coach. But they didn’t stop here; in their attempt to repeat the 2013 performance when they won the AFC Champions League, Guangzhou signed yet another Brazilian who previously played in the Premier League. Paulinho is the fourth Brazilian in the team, joining Ricardo Goulart, Elkeson and Alan. He will have the chance to debut in the Asian most prestigious inter-club competition next month against J-League side Kashiwa Reysol.
Reysol get passed Suwon Bluewings in the Round of 16 thanks to the away goal rule and faces more challenges going forward. Not only will they face all-spending Guangzhou but they will also have to do a much better job in the Japanese league. The team finished in 14th place – two places away from relegation – the first stage of the J-League Division 1 netting only four wins in 17 games.
The other Japanese team still competing in the AFC Champions League, Gamba Osaka was fourth after 17 rounds yet still has a good chance to secure a place for next season’s Champions League IF the team finishes in the top three. Gamba Osaka will try to eliminate the second straight South Korean team, current K-League Classic leaders Jeonbuk Motors in the last eight; in the round of 16, the Japanese eliminated 2014 K-League bronze-medalist FC Seoul.
The other two quarter-finals are basically a Middle-East affair. And even though the football season is over in this part of the world, the news keep coming. Take 2015 Qatar Stars League champs and Qatar Cup winner Lekhwiya Sports Club for example. After securing the domestic double and qualifying for the AFC Champions League last eight, Danish coach Michael Laudrup parted ways with the club; he is currently linked with several European jobs including taking over Denmark national football team. In his place, Lekhwiya hired Algerian Djamel Belmadi. This is not Belmadi first Lekhwiya coaching job. He led the Qatari side to two straight national championship in 2011 and 2012 and was part of the team’s Champions League debut in March 2012. Now he must find a way to surpass last year’s finalist and 2015 Saudi Professional League bronze-medalist Al Hilal.
Al Hilal should have been joined by compatriots from Al-Ahli in the quarter-finals but for an Iranian small but hard-working team. Naft Tehran are the biggest surprise of this year’s AFC Champions League edition. The team made its international debut in 2015 finishing Group B ahead of much-wealthier teams from Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia. In the Round of 16, Tehran shocked Al-Ahli and now they can do some more damage if they eliminate another Al-Ahli – the United Arab Emirates team – in the last eight. Al-Ahli from UAE didn’t have a season to remember finishing seventh in the Pro-League but they will try to lick their wounds clean and go after the Asian trophy.
Can they do it?
By: Florian Gheorghe