Matchday Six: 5 things to look out for
Kuala Lumpur: The final qualification places for the 2019 AFC Champions League Round of 16 will be decided in the coming days as the Matchday Six games promise to throw up some intriguing contests.
Four knockout round berths remain up for grabs in the East Zone while just one spot is still available in the West. Ahead of the final set of group stagefixtures, the-AFC.com has chosen five things to look out for.
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Can JDT pull off a miracle?
Having picked up just one point from their first four games on the Continent, Johor Darul Ta’zim appeared to be heading for the exit door, despite impressing on their debut AFC Champions League campaign.
But two weeks ago, the Malaysian side secured arguably the biggest result – and certainly the greatest scalp – in their history as Syafiq Ahmad scored the only goal of the game to defeat defending champions Kashima Antlers and keep their slim hopes of advancing alive.
69' - GOAL!! 1-0 Johor Darul Ta'zim!!— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) May 8, 2019
JDT have taken the lead against the odds here as Syafiq Ahmad dances past one Kashima defender to get inside the box and then curls his shot into the far post! Johor lead against the Asian champions!!! #ACL2019 #JDTvKAS pic.twitter.com/ZH5EwphkLb
Ahead of the trip to Gyeongnam FC, JDT prop up Group E although they will go above their opponents with a win. They are also three points adrift of second-placed Kashima but boast a marginally better head-to-head record, meaning victory coupled with Kashima losing at home to table-toppers Shandong will see them progress.
It’s admittedly a tall order but, with star striker Diogo back from suspension and the pressure undoubtedly on the holders, the side from southern Malaysia travel to Korea Republic with nothing to lose and may just secure the unlikeliest of qualifications.
Two-time champions in trouble
Arguably the most intriguing tie of the week comes at Saitama Stadium, where two-time champions Urawa Red Diamonds host runaway Chinese Super League leaders Beijing FC, with both sides currently level on seven points in the chase for Group G’s second qualification place.
Urawa sit above their opponents on goal difference but are in a perilous situation as a score draw or defeat would see them eliminated. To make matters worse, they go into the game on a poor run of form, having lost three out of four games in all competitions and two from two at home, including a 3-2 defeat by Shonan Bellmare on Friday.
In contrast, Beijing’s form has been nothing short of outstanding, having won all 10 of their Chinese Super League games this season to lead the way by five points. Indeed, only Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (two defeats) and Urawa (a scoreless draw) have denied them victory since the beginning of March.
On their only other trip to Saitama Stadium, in 2015, the side from the Chinese capital came away with a 1-1 draw to effectively eliminate Urawa. Should they manage a similar scorline or better on Tuesday, then a Continental giant would fall at the first hurdle.
Al Ahli’s reliance on Al Soma
After five rounds of fixtures, seven out of the eight knockout stage berths in the West Zone have already been confirmed to mean – by some distance – the most important game this week is in Jeddah, where Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli host Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor on Monday.
With the visitors two points ahead of the hosts in the standings, Al Ahli know only a win will suffice to see them into the knockout rounds and they will go into the game with confidence having won both their home games to date in Group D.
We’re ready! 💪 pic.twitter.com/sNs8O9m5Ij— Al-Ahli Saudi Club (@ALAHLI_FCEN) May 19, 2019
However, their reliance on star striker Omar Al Soma may be something of concern for head coach Yousef Anbar, with the prolific striker having scored all five of their goals – three of which have been penalties – in the group stage so far.
Pakhtakor have been impressive on their return to the competition, with the Tashkent side losing just once. Five points clear at the top of the Uzbek Super League, they will travel to Saudi Arabia with confidence and, should Al Soma have an off day, they may just seal their first knockout round appearance since 2010.
Brazilians to take centre stage in Guangzhou
Guangzhou Evergrande, like Urawa, are another two-time Continental champion in a spot of bother as only a victory over Korea Republic’s Daegu FC at Tianhe Stadium on Wednesday will secure their progression to the quarter-finals.
Currently two points adrift of their opponents having picked up just one point from their past two Group F games, Fabio Cannavaro will be looking for his big-name players – namely Brazilians Paulinho and Talisca – to lift their teammates, with the pair having scored five of Guangzhou's eight goals so far.
But Daegu also have a couple of Brazilians who could inspire them to glory, with Edgar Silva and Cesinha’s ability to work in tandem causing all sorts of problems for opposition defences to date and a major factor behind the Korean side’s 3-1 victory over Guangzhou in the reverse fixture on Matchday Two.
All four were on the scoresheet at the weekend as both Guangzhou and Daegu sealed league victories. On Edgar’s last appearance in Guangzhou, meanwhile, his goal secured a point for Buriram United in the 2018 group stage, and, if he nets once more against the Chinese side, a surprise could be on the cards.
Is Riyadh vs Jeddah on the horizon?
While the majority of the knockout round places in the West Zone have been taken, the teams that will progress in first place in Groups A, B and D have yet to be decided and there remains the not-too-unlikely scenario of a Riyadh versus Jeddah double header in the Round of 16.
The situation in Group D is simple: should Al Ahli record their third successive home victory against Pakhtakor, then they line up a clash with one of their biggest rivals, Group C table-toppers Al Hilal, who will be desperate for Continental glory after losing out on the Saudi Pro League title to Riyadh rivals Al Nassr.
Elsewhere, Al Nassr and Al Ittihad have both secured their progression from Groups A and B but, with the pair currently occupying second place in their Group A and B, can advance as group winners if they claim victories over table-toppers Zobahan and Al Wahda respectively.
On Tuesday, Al Nassr face unbeaten Zobahan in Iraq while Al Ittihad host Al Wahda in Jeddah. Should they match each other’s results then they avoid a Saudi derby in the next round, but if one wins and the other doesn’t, the last 16 may very well feature a pair of mouthwatering Riyadh against Jeddah match-ups.
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