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Round of 16 1st Leg: 5 Things To Look Out For

Kuala Lumpur: The 2019 AFC Champions League returns this week, with the eight sides in the East Zone taking to the field for the first legs of their Round of 16 fixtures. 

With five former champions – including the previous four winners – and a pair of same-country clashes, there is plenty to whet the appetite, so has picked out five things to look out for ahead of the action.

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Can Guangzhou overcome domestic curse?

Two Continental titles in three years between 2013 and 2015 firmly established Guangzhou Evergrande as an Asian giant but the side from Canton have struggled against domestic opposition in recent times, falling to Shanghai SIPG in 2017 and Tianjin Quanjian last year.

A first-leg collapse in the quarter-finals two years ago saw Shanghai claim a stunning 4-0 victory to give Guangzhou a mountain to climb. In an incredible return meeting at Tianhe Stadium, the hosts won 5-1 but ultimately lost from the spot as hat-trick hero Ricardo Goulart’s miss proved the difference.

Guangzhou came away from Tianjin with a more respectable 0-0 draw in the first leg of last year’s Round of 16 but this time away goals were the difference. Goulart twice put the home team in front but on each occasion the visitors responded as a 2-2 draw saw Fabio Cannavaro Tianjin advance.

With Cannavaro now at the Guangzhou helm, they welcome yet another domestic rival on Tuesday as Shandong Luneng stand in the way of a place in the last eight. The question is, will it be third time lucky for the two-time champions or can Shandong follow in the footsteps of Shanghai and Tianjin?

Will Sanfrecce’s excellent run continue?

Five victories in a row sees Sanfrecce Hiroshima enter the knockout phase as the competition’s form team, after the Japanese side recovered from an opening-day defeat to Guangzhou Evergrande to win their next five Group F games and advance with the highest points total on the Continent.

Their AFC Champions League form had been in stark contrast to performances domestically, with Sanfrecce losing five successive J.League games while simultaneously achieving their superb run on the Continent as they dropped down the table following an impressive start.

But things appear to be looking up again after Friday’s 2-0 victory over Shonan Bellmare made it two wins from three in the league ahead of what is only their second appearance in the knockout rounds and their first-ever AFC Champions League game against Japanese opposition.

Defender Sho Sasaki admitted there is extra motivation within the camp given that they are up against the holders and, should that inspire a first-leg win in Ibaraki, then Sanfrecce will also edge closer to the competition record nine wins in a row achieved by Ulsan Hyundai (2012) and Al Duhail (2018).

First leg in Saitama key

While it goes without saying that the first leg in any two-legged tie carries significance, form and history show that Wednesday’s result between 2017 champions Urawa Red Diamonds and 2012 winners Ulsan Hyundai may go a long way to deciding which side advances.

Saitama Stadium proved the inspiration for Urawa two years ago when they produced miraculous second-leg comebacks against Jeju United and Kawasaki Frontale, before following first-leg draws against Shanghai SIPG and Al Hilal with wins in front of home support to lift the title.

Two years on, Urawa – who haven't won a knockout round match away from home since their first title-winning campaign in 2007 – face the different prospect of playing the first leg at home and knowing victory could well prove key to their chances of progression, particularly as they have lost on their last six visits to Korea Republic.

While the Korean side have not won in seven away games, they don’t lose many either, with five of those ending in draws. Avoid defeat in Saitama and they will be favourites for the second leg in Ulsan, where they won all three Group H games without conceding and have won five in a row on the Continent. 

How far have Shanghai come?

In Shanghai SIPG’s maiden AFC Champions League campaign, in 2016, they advanced to the quarter-finals before a rude awakening at the hands of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who dealt the Chinese side a 5-0 second-leg defeat en route to lifting their second Continental title.

That result aside, it was an impressive showing by Shanghai as they proved a welcome addition to Asia’s premier club competition. A year later they progressed all the way to the semi-finals and, despite a disappointing last 16 exit 12 months ago, there is little doubt of their credentials.

Between 2015 and 2017, Shanghai also proved the biggest challenger to Guangzhou Evergrande’s domestic dominance, before they finally ended the Canton side’s seven-year reign by winning the Chinese Super League – their first major trophy – in 2018.

While Jeonbuk may not have dominated Asia like Guangzhou did in China, they are consistently among the strongest teams and it’s hard to imagine a tougher last 16 assignment. Three years on from a humbling defeat, should Shanghai avenge that loss, belief will grow that they can add to their trophy cabinet. 

Serginho to shine in the knockout rounds once more?

It’s fair to say that defending champions Kashima Antlers have yet to scale the heights of their 2018 campaign and, indeed, they were heading for the exit door until substitute Sho Ito’s second-half brace helped secure a 2-1 victory over Shandong Luneng on Matchday Six.

But it wasn’t until the knockout rounds last year that they truly found their best form, with Chinese duo Shanghai SIPG and Tianjin Quanjian – the latter in emphatic style – and then Korea Republic’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings all eliminated on their march to the final.

One man synonymous with their form in the latter stages of the competition was Serginho, the Brazilian who joined ahead of the quarter-finals and then scored in five successive games to inspire the Japanese side to their maiden Continental title.

Although the 24-year-old has netted twice in the current campaign, he hasn’t sparkled as consistently or emphatically. In 2018 he proved himself the man for the big occasion and, ahead of a clash with domestic rivals Sanfrecce Hiroshima, there may be no better time for him to return to the fore.

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