A first-half brace from Brazilian striker Elkeson rescued title-holders Guangzhou Evergrande from possible elimination and sent them into the AFC Champions League round-of-16 on Tuesday.
Marcello Lippi’s injury-hit tournament favorites had been in danger of bowing out, but they shrugged off the pressure to beat Yokohama F Marinos 2-1 in their final group game.
Guangzhou were joined by 2005-2006 winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who survived a late penalty shout to draw 0-0 with Melbourne Victory and escape an ultra-tight Group G on goal-difference.
Earlier in Group H, Western Sydney Wanderers beat Guizhou Renhe 5-0, the biggest win by an Australian club in the competition, to reach the knockout stage on their tournament debut, while Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale also progressed when they won 3-1 at home against Ulsan Hyundai, the 2011-2012 champions, who paid the price for losing their final three games.
On a tense evening at Guangzhou’s Tianhe Sport Center, Elkeson took just 11 minutes to settle the nerves when he nodded the defending champions in front.
The packed crowd were celebrating again shortly before halftime when the big forward, fed by Muriqui, chipped the on-rushing goalkeeper and saw his shot headed over the line by defender Yuzo Kobayashi.
With five minutes left, Manabu Saito pulled one back with a scything left-foot strike from the edge of the penalty area, but there was to be no miracle comeback by the Japanese side.
In Sydney, Shannon Cole put the Wanderers ahead in the sixth minute with a flying volley and they made it a tournament-record tally by an Australian side with a rush of goals late in the second half.
The Wanderers scored four in 13 minutes with Labinot Haliti seizing on a poor back-pass to the goalkeeper and Aaron Mooy converting a penalty after Michael Beauchamp had his jersey tugged by Guo Sheng.
Japanese superstar Shinji Ono lit up Parramatta Stadium with an unstoppable volley and defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley completed the scoring with a free header off a corner.
“It’s a fantastic feeling and to do it in that manner as well, five goals, after we lost the first game in the group,” Wanderers coach Tony Popovic said. “It was an uphill battle, but the players have shown a lot of belief to finish top of the group.”
Victory were unable to follow up last week’s win over Guangzhou when they could only draw 0-0 with Jeonbuk, in a frustrating evening when a strong penalty appeal was waved away late on.
Kawasaki went through thanks to goals from Yu Kobayashi, Yoshito Okubo and Jeci, against Rafinha’s lone strike for visitors Ulsan.
In Doha, a superb strike by Rodrigo Tabata helped Qatar giants Al Sadd SC make the round-of-16 with a 2-1 win over the United Arab Emirates champions Al Ahli in their final Group D clash.
The crucial win saw Al Sadd take second place with eight points, one behind Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, who beat Iran’s Foolad Mobarakeh Sepahan 1-0 in Riyadh.
It was Al Ahli who took the lead, Grafite beating the Al Sadd goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb with a 15th-minute strike off a pass from Jociel da Silva, but Al Ahli failed to capitalize on their advantage as some extremely slopping defending allowed Tabata to snatch the ball and pass it to Khalfan Ibrahim, who scored with a fine shot from close range in the 34th minute.
Al Sadd sealed their win in the 79th minute, this time Ibrahim providing the assist to Tabata, whose cracking shot slammed into the net.