5 Things To Look Out For
Kuala Lumpur: After just over two months of continental action, the final round of AFC Champions League group stage fixtures has arrived with five qualification spots for the last 16 still up for grabs.
With two places to be claimed in the West and a further three in the East, the-AFC.com highlights five things to look out for ahead of a week when everything will be decided.
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1. Can Buriram follow in Muangthong’s footsteps?
When the draw for the 2018 AFC Champions League group stage was made, Buriram United appeared to have an uphill task, after being paired alongside two-time winners Guangzhou Evergrande, Cerezo Osaka and Jeju United.
A point in Guangzhou proved a solid start and the Thai side have lost just once since – at home to bottom team Jeju – while boasting a better head-to-head record against Cerezo, which could prove crucial come Tuesday night.
Buriram travel to already eliminated Jeju needing a victory to have any chance of a top-two finish while Cerezo are in Guangzhou, who themselves need a point to confirm progression.
Last year, Muangthong United caused a stir by becoming the first Thai side to advance to the last 16 since Buriram in 2013. If Buriram win in Korea Republic and Cerezo fail to claim victory in southern China, the Southeast Asian nation will again be represented in the knockout rounds.
2. A tussle to the end in Qatar
Group D has been particularly intriguing from the start, with a trio of former continental champions in Al Ain, Al Hilal and Esteghlal all drawn together, alongside Qatar’s Al Rayyan.
Unbeaten Esteghlal secured qualification last week, when Al Hilal’s elimination was also confirmed after the Saudi side had previously advanced to nine knockout rounds in a row. That leaves Al Ain and Al Rayyan to battle it out for second place.
Al Ain remain undefeated and are a point ahead of Monday’s opponents, while Al Rayyan have history in failing to get the results when it matters most, having never made it beyond the group stage in seven attempts.
Victory in front of home support at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium would see the Qatari side do so for the first time, but fail to win and they’re out. A nervy night lies ahead in Doha in what promises to be one of the match-ups of the week.
3. Will Dejan produce to halt Sydney resurgence?
Suwon Samsung Bluewings pulled off a real coup in acquiring Dejan Damjanovic from rivals FC Seoul before the onset of this season’s AFC Champions League and the Montenegrin got off to a flying start in netting twice in a 2-0 opening-day win at Sydney FC.
Sydney then claimed two points from their next three games while Suwon appeared to be heading towards the knockout rounds as they sat five points ahead of the Australian side ahead of their Matchday Five meeting in Korea Republic two weeks ago.
Damjanovic netted once more against Sydney but the visitors produced a stunning performance to run out 4-1 winners and move within two points of Suwon with a game remaining to really apply the pressure.
Sydney host eliminated Shanghai Shenhua on Tuesday while Suwon have a tough task away at group leaders Kashima Antlers. Failure to win and the Korean side could well exit; there may be no better time for the competition’s second highest scorer ever to again deliver the goods.
4. A play-off in Tashkent to join Al Duhail
First place in Group B had seemed a formality since the third round of fixtures as Al Duhail have grabbed the headlines in sweeping everyone aside in winning all five of their games.
Such has been the dominance of the Qatari side, the battle beneath them has gone somewhat unnoticed as Zobahan, Lokomotiv and Al Wahda have taken points off each other in what have been inconsistent campaigns.
Al Wahda’s exit was confirmed when Lokomotiv claimed a rare away win two weeks ago to move level on points with Zobahan and set up a final-day showdown in Tashkent, where the Uzbek champions have generally been strong during four years of continental action.
An inferior head-to-head record means only a win on Tuesday will see Lokomotiv through, but Zobahan have not lost in Uzbekistan since 2004 and ran out 2-0 winners over Bunyodkor on their last visit in 2017.
5. Al Wasl fans would love something to cheer
When Fabio Lima gave Al Wasl a 26th-minute lead against Al Sadd in the Emirati side’s first game in the competition in a decade, their fans could have been forgiven for dreaming of fun times ahead.
But Al Sadd won 2-1 after two goals in the final 15 minutes, before Al Wasl then lost to Nasaf and twice Persepolis without registering another goal. Brazilian Ciao scored their first goal since the opening game two weeks ago, but it was a consolation in another 2-1 defeat to Al Sadd.
Elimination was confirmed some time ago but Al Wasl will still be desperate to rid themselves of the unwanted tag of being the only team yet to pick up a point on the continent and Monday’s visit of Nasaf provides the perfect opportunity.
The Uzbek side’s campaign has been far from disastrous and at home they’re a match for anyone. Five away defeats in a row spread over their past two campaigns, though, is proof they don’t like to travel. If that becomes six then Al Wasl will at least leave the competition on a high.
Photo: Getty Images
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