South Korea and Japan’s domination of East Asian soccer is being further eroded, judging by the make-up of the quarter-finalists in this season’s Asian Champions League.
The two nations have between them won all but one of the past seven Asian Champions League titles — with the exception being a penalty shootout loss in the final — and have been the top dogs in the eastern half of the continental competition throughout that period.
However, this year’s results show the dip last year may have been the start of a trend rather than a blip. Japan’s slide started a while back. On Wednesday, Kashiwa Reysol became just the second J-League team to reach the last eight in the past four years.
Now Korean representation is also falling.
Despite providing all four quarter-finalists from the eastern half of the draw in 2010 and three in 2011, the K-League has just one team in this year’s edition; the same as last year.
So open is the tournament that the last eight is made up of teams from seven different countries. East Asia will send clubs from Japan, South Korea, China and Thailand, while the western half has two from Saudi Arabia and representatives from Iran and Qatar.
The presence of Guangzhou Evergrande — the biggest-spending team in Asia with 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi at the helm — is not a surprise, but the presence of Buriram United is less expected. The team, owned by controversial politician Newin Chidchob, has become a powerhouse in Thailand and is the first from South-East Asia to reach the last eight since 2003.
Montenegrin international Dejan Damjanovic has played in three Asian Champions League campaigns for South Korea’s FC Seoul and was in action against Buriram in the group stage.
“Standards are rising,” said Damjanovic, who scored against England in a vital 2014 World Cup qualifier in March. “I was really surprised how well Buriram United played. Especially when they play at home, they are very tough opponents, but are improving away from home too.”
“It’s really interesting, four teams from four countries in the east. It is more interesting to watch and the games are more exciting. The future will be better for us to play in full stadiums,” he added.
South Korea has won 10 continental titles in total, including three of the last four, but Damjanovic welcomes the challenge.
“The K-League is one of the best in Asia and all Korean teams think they can win the Champions League, but it is harder now. I remember in 2009 we played Indonesian and Chinese teams. They had good foreign players, but the domestic players were weaker than they are now. You can see how they have improved and how the coaching has improved too. It is much harder now, it is totally different football,” Damjanovic said.
Buriram won its first leg at home 2-1 against Bunyodkor and held the Uzbekistan powerhouse to a goalless draw in Tashkent on Tuesday.
“We are strong enough to become a top-10 team in Asia,” Newin said. “The win is for Thai fans and our supporters. Thai football is not an underdog to any team in Asia now.”
Damjanovic believes that Buriram is not yet good enough to win the title, but the same cannot be said of Guangzhou. No Chinese team has been crowned Asian champion since 1989-1990, but Evergrande reached the last eight last year and did the same on Wednesday, overcoming the challenge of Central Coast Mariners from Australia to win 5-1 over two legs.
“I’m very satisfied with today’s result,” Lippi said on Wednesday. “We’ve been playing a lot of matches consecutively and it might have had an impact on us physically, but today’s result was good. The players concentrated very well, in the game they were well organized and we have realized we are a strong team and we need to continue this way. We have acquired the sort of mentality that we would like to win every match we play.”
As well as the world-famous coach, the team boasts a number of Chinese internationals and expensive foreign imports such as Dario Conca from Argentina and Paraguay’s Lucas Barrios, making them the favorite to lift the trophy and end China’s 24 year drought.
“You have to be honest and say they were the better team,” Central Coast coach Graham Arnold said. “They have some wonderful players with blinding pace and they were the better team, and I wish Marcello Lippi and Evergrande all the best for the coming games. I have to say in the two years we’ve been playing in the AFC Champions League they’re the best team we’ve come up against.”
Kashiwa Reysol of Japan has also impressed and confirmed its title credentials by disposing of Korean powerhouse Jeonbuk Motors.
Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli lost 3-0 to Korea’s Ulsan Horangi in the final in November and is determined to go one better this year, progressing to the quarter-final with a comfortable win over El Jaish of Qatar. Al Shabab become the second Saudi team in the last eight by eliminating Al Gharafa, also of Qatar.
Qatar is represented in the final eight by Lekhwiya, with Iranian giant Esteghlal also making it through. The quarter-final stage is to be played in August and September.