The Scorers Battle
Kuala Lumpur: Ahead of the hotly anticipated quarter-final clashes, four seasoned goal scorers are leading the heated race to become the 2018 AFC Champions League top goalscorer.
By the time the quarter-finals rolled around last year, Omar Abdulrahman led the AFC Champions League scoring race with seven goals but Omar Khrbin eventually won the prize with 10 goals. This year, we have not one, but two players who have already hit nine goals ahead of the quarter-finals; Baghdad Bounedjah and Youssef El Arabi.
While seven-goal man Mame Baba Thiam has swapped Esteghlal for Ajman in the UAE Pro League, two players continue to keep the pressure on the North African duo. Dejan Damjanovic and Kim Shin-wook are both on five goals, but only one of them will advance into the semi-finals as their teams clash in the last eight.
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Youssef El Arabi
French-born Moroccan striker El Arabi has scored nine goals in the Champions League this season, more than he managed in his entire career in the competition. Despite participating twice prior in Asia's most elite contest, this is set to be El Arabi's first appearance in the quarter-finals.
The 31-year-old failed to find the net in his first match for Al Duhail but bounced with successive braces in all three subsequent games against Al Wahda and in both fixtures against Lokomotiv to propel his team to qualification as the unbeaten Group B toppers. The former Al Hilal man added three more goals over the two Round-of-16 legs against Al Ain, leading the Qatari side into the last eight.
Having swapped coach Djamel Belmadi for Nabil Maaloul over the summer, next up for Al Duhail is the challenge of Islamic Republic of Iran champions Persepolis, who conceded three goals against Qatari side Al-Sadd this campaign. However with Youssef Msakni still out with an injury, El-Arabi could find it tough to score without the Tunisian feeding him chances.
In his debut season in the AFC Champions League, Bounedjah has hit the ground running. His nine goals in eight matches put him level with El Arabi at the top of the scoring charts. Al Sadd have faced five teams in the competition and the Algerian striker found the back of the net against all of them, bagging a whopping 60 percent of his side’s goals.
Bounedjah’s brace in the second leg of the Round of 16 clash with Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli secured an important 2-2 away victory for the Qatari side who secured qualification to the quarter-finals, having won the first leg at home 2-1.
After exchanging wins with Iranian giants Persepolis in the group stage, Bounedjah and co face a two-legged quarter-final against Tehran’s blue half, Esteghlal. Al Sadd would be happy with a repeat of their 3-2 aggregate score over Persepolis and a second brace against Iranian opponents in the competition would put Bounedjah on track to winning the scoring race.
Among those players battling for this year’s AFC Champions League top scorer award, no one comes even close to matching Damjanovic’s competition tally of 32 goals. The Montenegrin forward moved to Suwon Samsung Bluewings last January, after spending eight years with their K-League rivals, FC Seoul.
At the age of 37, Damjanovic is targeting his first continental title, having come close in 2013 when FC Seoul lost the final to China PR’s Guangzhou Evergrande on away goals.
The veteran started the 2018 campaign well, bagging both goals in his side's 2-0 win against Sydney FC on Matchday One. He then found the net in each of the final three games of the group stage to help secure first spot in Group H for Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
Damjanovic’s goals dried up in the Tound of 16, despite the team’s 3-0 victory over fellow Korean side Ulsan Hyundai in the second leg, and he will be eager to bounce back in another all-Korean clash against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to keep close the gap on El Arabi and Bounedjah.
With two titles under his belt, Kim is the only contender in this list who has won the competition, and he has achieved that milestone with two different teams. He first became Asian champion in 2012 with Ulsan Hyundai, before moving to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to win his second AFC Champions League in his maiden season with them in 2016.
After firing blanks in his first two outings this season, the towering striker responded with fire, bagging a hat-trick in the 6-3 win over Tianjin Quanjian, before scoring another goal against the Chinese opponents in the reverse fixture.
On the final day of the group stage, the 30-year-old added his fifth of the campaign against Kitchee, guiding his team to finish first in Group E, and just like Damjanovic, he did not score in the Round of 16 and will be motivated to get back to scoring ways in the quarter-finals.
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