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One month to the quarter-finals


Kuala Lumpur: Asia's most prestigious club competition returns in exactly one month with eight of the continent's finest teams vying for four semi-final spots.

It has been five and a half months since Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv put five past UAE’s Al Wahda to signal an exciting start to the 2018 AFC Champions League group stage. 112 matches and 334 goals later and we are down to eight contestants for the Continental trophy.

Both sides that got us underway exited the competition at the group stage, with the Uzbeks only missing out on a Knockout Stage spot due to an inferior head-to-head record against Islamic Republic of Iran’s Zobahan who nipped second place in Group B. The big winners from the group were Qatar’s Al Duhail, who became just the fourth team in the AFC Champions League history to collect all 18 points in the group stage.

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Head-to-head was also a decisive factor in Group A as UAE’s Al Jazira ended a 15-game winless run in the competition to edge out Qatar’s Al Gharafa to second place. Both teams finished the group with eight points, but the Abu Dhabi based side had beaten their opponents with the same score 3-2 in both fixtures, earning a Round of 16 place alongside group leaders Al Ahli from Saudi Arabia.

Two of the eight quarter-finalists came from Group C as Al Sadd and Persepolis exchanged wins, and the Iranians finished top of the group with 13 points, one more than their Qatari chasers. The ten points collected by Uzbekistan’s FC Nasaf in this group are the highest for any team eliminated at the group stage.

Rounding off the Round of 16 qualifiers from West Asia were Iran’s Esteghlal and UAE’s Al Ain. In a group which included three former Asian champions, last year’s runners-up Al Hilal were the ones to miss out as they finished bottom with two points and no wins to their name.

Over in the East, Group E was a real goal-fest, with a competition-high 44 goals scored. Jeonju World Cup Stadium was home to the highest scoring AFC Champions League match since 2008 as eventual quarter-finalists Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Tianjin Quanjian played out a nine-goal thriller, with the Koreans emerging 6-3 winners. Jeonbuk finished top of the group while also bagging 22 goals, more than any other team in the group stage.

Korea Republic was home to another goal bonanza when Ulsan Hyundai trumped Melbourne Victory 6-2 in the decisive Matchday Five fixture where the winners joined Shanghai SIPG in qualifying from Group F.

Group G was a hotly contested one, where we had to wait until the end of the final matchday to find out the two Knockout Stage qualified teams. Ultimately, Guangzhou Evergrande beat Cerezo Osaka to book the first ticket, while Thailand’s Buriram United accompanied them after mustering a 1-0 away victory against Jeju United.

Finally, Group H produced two quarter-finalists as Suwon Samsung Bluewings defeated Kashima Antlers 1-0 on Matchday Six to pip them to the top of the group. Both teams progressed to the Round of 16.

As May rolled around, it was time for the Round of 16. Eight heavy two-legged clashes across the Continent produced memorable action. Qatari and Iranian teams were the biggest winners in the West, while there were all-Korean and all-Chinese encounters in the East.

Captain Jalal Hosseini’s last-minute winner at Azadi Stadium sent last year’s semi-finalists Persepolis into the quarter-finals on away goals. The Iranian had been beaten 3-2 at Al Jazira’s ground in Abu Dhabi in the first leg, so the 2-1 win the following week was enough to see them through.

Saudi Arabia’s sole remaining representatives in the competition, Al Ahli, fell to a 4-3 aggregate loss to Al Sadd, with Algerian forward Baghdad Bounedjah netting a brace in the second leg to take his competition tally to nine goals at the top of the scoring charts.

 

 

Al Sadd were joined in the quarter-finals by compatriots Al Duhail, who put in an impressive attacking display against inaugural champions Al Ain across both legs to record and emphatic 4-2 win at home and 4-1 away in the return leg. Moroccan striker Youssef El Arabi scored three of the eight goals to match Bounedjah’s nine goals.

An all-Iranian affair saw Esteghlal follow their arch-rivals Persepolis into the last eight with a 3-2 aggregate win over Zobahan. The highlight of the tie was a brace from Mame Baba Thiam.

Two-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande were stunned at home as Tianjin Quanjian came from behind twice to draw 2-2 in the second leg after the first fixture in Tianjin had ended goalless. The away goals earned Alexander Pato and company a quarter-final place on their AFC Champions League debut.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors continued their pursuit of a third Continental title by reversing a 3-2 first leg defeat against Buriram United to win the second leg 2-0 and advance to the quarter-finals. They were joined by Suwon Samsung Bluewings who defeated fellow Koreans Ulsan Hyundai 3-1 on aggregate.

Kashima Antlers ensured Japan have a representative in the quarter-finals after they overcame Shanghai SIPG 4-3 on aggregate. A 3-1 first leg win in Kashima laid the foundation for qualification and a brace from Hulk in the return fixture was not enough to bring the Chinese side back into the tie once Shoma Doi had scored for Kashima.

 

With all eight teams confirmed, it was time for the draw which produced some tasty encounters. In a month’s time, Esteghlal welcome Al Sadd to Azadi Stadium in a repeat of their Group C meeting to get the quarter-finals underway.

Another Iranian-Qatari encounter pits Esteghlal against serial winners Al Duhail who are on an eight-game winning run. One of Kashima Antlers and Tianjin Quanjian will reach the AFC Champions League semi-finals for the first time in their history, while an all-Korean encounter sees Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors face Suwon Samsung Bluewings.

Four places up for grabs and plenty of excitement to come across the Continent. For the next four weeks, the 2018 AFC Champions League quarter-finals will be all that’s on the minds of the eight sides and their fans.

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