Asian football history will be made this Wednesday with South Korea at the heart of it all. The Land of the Morning Calm is supplying 50% of the eight teams still involved in the Asian Champions League as the continental competition resumes at the quarterfinal stage after a break of four months.
Much has happened since the second round came to a close in May, not least the 2010 World Cup. Nothing like this, one nation supplying the maximum four teams possible, has happened before however.
East and South-East Asia supplied 16 of the 32 teams that started out in the competition back in February. The four teams each from Japan and China have fallen by the wayside as have representatives from Australia, Indonesia and Singapore. Only Togel Singapore Korea remains as the K-League looks for a ninth championship and East Asia for a fifth in succession.
Now, with the final in sight, the continent is no longer split into east and west. After the group stage and the one-off match of the second round, the quarter and semi-finals are two-legged affairs.
Defending Asian champions Pohang Steelers and defending Korean champions Jeonbuk Motors will face long trips to West Asia over the next week. Not Seongnam Ilhwa or Suwon Bluewings though. Most eyes in Korea will be on the clash between the Gyeonggi giants who become the first all-Korean participants of an Asian tie since Jeonbuk and Ulsan met at the semi-final stage of the 2006 tournament.
It promises to be quite a clash, both at Seongnam’s Tancheon Stadium on Wednesday and in the second leg at Suwon World Cup Stadium a week later. A few months ago, Seongnam, would have been the overwhelming favorites to progress to the last four for the third time in seven years but much has changed over the summer.
To be more accurate, Suwon have changed. The team now bears little resemblance to the soporific and sluggish side that sank to the bottom of the K-League in the first half of the season. With loss after loss in the domestic game, coach Cha Bum-keun, regarded as the greatest Asian soccer player of the 20th century, called it a day in June.
His replacement Yoon Sung-hyo has, so far, been a revelation. Seven wins and two ties, a record marred only by last weekend’s loss at the hands of leaders Jeju United, have seen the Bluewings soar from bottom to seventh place in the league.
New signing Naohiro Takahara is starting to score and the former Japanese international in joined in attacked by the returning Shin Young-rok. With Kim Doo-hyun and Baek Ji-hoon looking like their former selves in midfield, Suwon fans are confident of upsetting Seongnam.
In Asian terms that would be something of a shock. Seongnam were much more impressive in the Champions League earlier this season and is still going well in the league with six wins from its last ten matches. Coach Shin Tae-yong is looking to become the first man to win the Asian Champions League as both coach and player after lifting the trophy with the same club back in 1996.
“Suwon has a strong forward and midfield line-up …and the team condition of Suwon looks very good and it is also playing well. But we don’t need to worry about this. We will prepare well and win.” said Shin to the official homepage of the Asian Football Confederation.
“Every K-League club has a keen desire to play in the Champions League. They want to win the prize money and they want to play in the FIFA Club World Cup. So they prepare a lot for the competition. I think this is the main reason why four K-League clubs could reach the last eight this year.”
Pohang Steelers won the competition last year for a record third time and despite the team’s poor form at home; they have made it into the last eight once again. The first leg is a long trek to the home of Iran’s league leaders Zob Ahan. It is the first time that the hosts have made it this far but after the Iranian national team won 1-0 in Seoul last week in an international friendly, Pohang will be taking nothing for granted.
The third Korean match sees Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia travel to Jeonju to face Jeonbuk Motors. It is the first West Asian opposition for the Greens since the final of the 2006 tournament in which they defeated Al Karama of Syria. Jeonbuk will be favorites to progress to the last four despite a poor showing last Friday as they lost 3-1 at home to Gangwon FC. Last, and for Koreans, least, is the all West Asian clash between Saudi Arabian powerhouse AL Hilal and Qatar’s Al Gharafa.