Gamba Osaka beat Indonesian minnows Sriwijaya 3-0 to become the first team into the AFC Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday, with fellow Japanese outfit Kawasaki Frontale set to join them.
Goals from Leandro, Hayato Sasaki and Cho Jae-jin handed the defending champions a comfortable win in Pelambang city to keep intact their 100 percent record in Group F of Asia’s top club competition.
Chinese champions Shandong Luneng are well placed to be the other team from the group to make the knockout rounds after a hard-fought 1-1 draw against FC Seoul moved them to seven points ahead of the Koreans on four.
They have two games to play.
Gamba are the only team in the competition to win all their games, in contrast to Sriwijaya, who have yet to get off the mark.
Winning last year’s title has not dulled coach Akira Nishino’s desire for further success.
“The road to defending our title is still long but we know how to repeat our success,” he said.
“This is a long competition and one can only prevail if consistency is maintained and that is, in my opinion, the key to a success in this competition,” Nishino said.
In Seoul, Alejandro Cichero scored a late equalizer to salvage a draw for Shandong.
A first-half header from Park Yong-ho put the hosts ahead and they went close to adding to their lead on several occasions.
But they couldn’t find the decisive second goal and were left ruing their chances when Shandong leveled the game with 10 minutes to go, Cichero heading home from close range.
In Kawasaki, Central Coast Mariners manager Lawrie McKinna was desperate to salvage some pride against Frontale who beat the Aussies 5-0 at home earier this month.
They went some way to doing that in a 2-1 defeat but ultimately will need a huge slice of luck to stay in the competition.
It appeared the Mariners were heading for a crucial point after Matt Simon’s second-half equalizer had canceled out Brazilian midfielder Juninho’s opener.
But an 80th minute strike by substitute Renatinho virtually assured progression to the knockout stages for Frontale.
The Mariners remain on two points and must win their final matches — away to South Korea’s Pohang Steelers and at home to Chinese side Tianjin Teda.
In the other Group H game, Tianjin played out a goalless draw with Pohang Steelers.
Saudi side Ettifaq stayed top of Group D as they walloped Al Shabab Al Arabi 4-1 in Dubai with a hat-trick by in-form Ghanaian striker Prince Tagoe, which saw them come from behind to claim the three points.
Uzbek champions Bunyodkor, last year’s semi-finalists, had earlier beaten Iran’s Sepahan 1-0 with the goal coming from Timur Kopadze.
Bunyodkor now have seven points, two behind Ettifaq.
In Group B, Iranian giants Piroozi suffered a humiliating 5-1 defeat at the hands of Qatari side Al Gharafa in Doha with a hat-trick by Araujo Soares the feature of the match and avenged a 3-1 reverse at the hands of the same opponents last month.
It left the victors coach Marcos Paqueta positively salivating at their performance.
“It is a memorable day for Al Garafa,” purred Paqueta, whose side are just a point behind Piroozi in the standings.
“We played a great match against a very good team. We wanted a positive result from this match but this is even better,” he said.
However, Saudi side Al Shabab stayed three clear of Piroozi after they too went goal crazy beating Sharjah of the UAE 5-0 to edge tantalizingly close to the knockout stages.