What the first round of this season’s Asian Champions League lacked in quality, it made up for in unpredictability, as three recent champions made early exits from the competition.
A number of the usual challengers from the eastern half of the draw were markedly weaker than in recent years, with last season’s runners-up Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea eliminated after conceding 15 goals in six games.
Japan’s Gamba Osaka, the winners in 2008, lost five games, while Pohang Steelers, the South Koreans who lifted an unprecedented third Asian title in 2009, were eliminated in the last of the group matches.
However, the fall of past champions was not a result of other teams catching up, as even clubs who did progress to the second round failed to impress.
Australia’s Sasa Ognenovski, who led South Korea’s Seongnam Ilwa to the title two years ago and through the group stage this year, was also part of the Adelaide United team that reached the final in 2008. He believes that this season has, so far, not been up to the standards of recent years.
“Last year was good, but perhaps this year is just a bit of a lull,” Ognenovski said. “The field has evened up a bit. Recently it has been Korean teams dominating and Jeonbuk should have won last year, but have struggled this year and at the moment the other teams don’t seem as strong.”
Jeonbuk and Osaka both lost long-serving coaches in the off-season. Jeonbuk has also had to deal with injuries, while Osaka sold some of their best talent.
Pohang Steelers had two of their best players drafted to the military and saw others move on.
The South Koreans were knocked out by a Bunyodkor team that no longer has international stars such as 2002 World Player of the Year Rivaldo or Luiz Felipe Scolari, the coach who led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title.
Chinese teams were disappointing again.
Tianjin Teda and Beijing Guoan failed to win a single game, while big-spending Guangzhou Evergrande, tipped by many to be title contenders, started strongly, but soon faded. Only a last-minute penalty in the last game took Guangzhou through from their group along with Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol.
Guangzhou have since fired coach Lee Jang-soo, despite that the fact that the South Korean manager helped the team win promotion in 2010 and claim the Chinese Super League title last season.
Perhaps the two most impressive performers from the eastern half of the group stage were Ulsan Horangi, who finished sixth in last year’s K-league, and Tokyo, promoted from the second tier in Japan.
Both teams had little trouble disposing of Beijing and Australian champions Brisbane Roar in their group.
While Adelaide won their group, the other Australian clubs struggled. Two-time defending A-League champions Brisbane failed to win a single game, while Central Coast Mariners managed just one victory.