The full-mark club, can Al Duhail join these three history makers?
Kuala Lumpur: Al Duhail are within one match of finishing the Qatari league season unbeaten, having sealed the title with three games to go. Now, they have the chance to join an elite group of clubs in the AFC Champions League.
Al Duhail fans breathed a sigh of relief as the final whistle at the Lokomotiv Stadium in Tashkent confirmed a hard-fought win for their side. Two goals from Youssef El Arabi had brought them from the brink of a first defeat in the competition to seal their passage into the 2018 AFC Champions League knockout stage with two matches to spare.
The result also meant Djamel Belmadi's men can join an elite group of clubs to win all six AFC Champions League group stage matches in a season, should they achieve victories against Zobahan and Al Wahda in April.
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Below, we take a look at the three clubs that have achieved the incredible feat of winning all six AFC Champions League group stage matches in a season.
Shandong Luneng Taishan – China PR (2005)
Shandong Luneng Taishan’s inaugural AFC Champions League appearance remains arguably the club’s most memorable in the competition.
A 1-0 win on the opening matchday away at Japan's Yokohama F. Marinos offered a solid start to their continental campaign, and the Chinese outfit would go on to win by the same scoreline against Thailand's BEC Tero Sasana and Indonesia's PSM Makassar to cement their position at the top of the group at the halfway point.
What followed, however, was even more impressive; Shandong turned in a scintillating performance to achieve a 6-1 victory against a helpless Makassar side in Jinan.
The four-time Chinese champions then dispatched closest challengers Yokohama in a 2-1 victory to seal qualification with a match to spare.
Travelling to Bangkok to take on Tero in their final Group F match, Shandong were missing a number of key personnel, including manager Ljubisa Tumbakovic and top scorer Zheng Zhi, but any doubts surrounding the visitors’ intent were quashed as early as the third minute, when Romania’s Ionel Danciulescu scored after a rebound from the hosts’ goalkeeper.
The rest is history; a 4-0 rout was completed to seal a 100 percent record in Asia’s showpiece club competition.
What happened next?
Shandong secured a 1-1 draw at home to defending champions Al Ittihad to keep the tie balanced on a knife’s edge heading into the second leg.
Further continental glory was not on the cards for Shandong, however, as they were ruthlessly put to the sword by Al Ittihad, who ran out 7-2 winners (8-3 on aggregate).
Since the 2005 season, Shandong have only succeeded in qualifying from their group on one further occasion, reaching the quarter-finals in 2016.
Busan I’Park – Korea Republic (2005)
Another one of the three occasions a team managed to finish the AFC Champions League group stage with a perfect record, came in the same season.
Ian Porterfield’s men went one better than Shandong in 2005 as they managed to seal qualification with not just one but two rounds of group stage matches remaining.
Contrary to Shandong’s conservative start to their group, Busan came storming out of the blocks, handing a painful 8-0 loss to Vietnamese club Binh Dinh FC, with five second-half goals.
Buoyed by their opening matchday masterclass, Busan eased past Krung Thai and Persebaya with minimal fuss, to set up a crucial away fixture against the latter that would see Busan seal first place with a victory.
In Surabaya, Lee Jung-hyo settled initial nerves with a ninth minute opener, and the K-League outfit ran out 3-0 winners in the end, to seal progression to the next round.
Not to be outdone by Shandong, Busan then secured back-to-back 4-0 wins against Binh Dinh and Krung Thai in May, to make it two clubs with a perfect group stage record in the same AFC Champions League season.
What happened next?
Busan I’Park went one better than their fellow record-setters by easing to a 5-1 aggregate win in the quarter-finals against Qatari side Al Sadd.
However, they would be felled by the same sword as Shandong in the end, as eventual winners Al Ittihad defeated them in both semi-final legs to cruise into the final with a 7-0 aggregate scoreline.
Busan have not played in the AFC Champions League since that 2005 campaign.
Kashima Antlers – Japan (2010)
The third, and last, club to enter the full mark club is the 2010 Kashima Antlers team. Kashima were coming off the high of becoming the first and only team in Japanese football history to win three consecutive top-flight titles since the establishment of the J-League in 1993.
Kashima edged past Changchun Yatai on Matchday One, courtesy of a first-half Koji Nakata strike.
A tightly-fought 2-1 victory over K-League giants Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors followed in early March, before the reigning J-League champions sparked into life a fortnight later, putting Persipura Jayapura to the sword in a sparkling display that culminated in a 5-0 win.
Another win over Persipura in the return fixture a week later would seal early qualification for Kashima, and a chance to push for a place in AFC Champions League history.
As the final whistle sounded, the scoreboard read Persipura 1, Kashima 3; the first and primary mission had accomplished, and convincingly so.
There was still a lot to play for, however.
Finishing in first place would mean playing at home in the one-legged round of 16, and any potential advantages in such a tricky tie would be crucial.
As such, Kashima pressed on, and managed to snatch a vital win away at Changchun, with Shinzo Koroki scoring the game’s only goal towards the end of the first half.
In the final Group F match, everything was at stake for Kashima Antlers; a win would seal top spot and make them the third-ever club to finish with a perfect record in the AFC Champions League group stage, while a loss would potentially see Jeonbuk sneak into first place and clinch a home berth in the next round.
Lee Jung-soo and Takuya Nozawa scored in the 20th and 22nd minutes respectively to kill off the contest midway through the first half, and after holding on to win 2-1, Kashima sealed their place in the competition's history.
What happened next?
Kashima disappointingly lost at home to Pohang Steelers in the knock-out stage, as their 2010 AFC Champions League campaign came to an anti-climactic end.
Kashima are participating in the 2018 edition, and can secure a top two spot in Group H if they avoid defeat against Shanghai Shenhua on April 4, at the Hongkou Football Stadium.
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