Defending champions Western Sydney Wanderers underlined their determination to retain the AFC Champions League title this season with a hard-fought 3-1 win over Japan’s Kashima Antlers on Wednesday, while 2014 runners-up Al Hilal also began their campaign with victory by the same margin after defeating Uzbekistan side Lokomotiv 3-1 in Riyadh.
Kashima defender Gen Shoji had put the holders in front with an own goal only for Shoma Doi to level for the J.League side just after the midway point of the second half.
But goals from former Sanfrecce Hiroshima midfielder Yojiro Takahagi on 86 minutes and Mark Bridge in stoppage time saw the Australian side claim all three points.
And Western Sydney were joined at the top of Group H by China’s Guangzhou Evergrande after new signing Ricardo Goulart scored the game’s only goal to give the 2013 champions a 1-0 win over their opponents from the final two years ago, FC Seoul of Korea Republic.
“It was a very tough game and Kashima are an exceptionally good team with fabulous history, and for us to come here to start our AFC Champions League defense with a positive a result is fantastic achievement for us,” said Western Sydney assistant coach Ian Crook.
“Our performance in the A-League at times is very good, but maybe we haven’t got the results that we think we deserve, but certainly winning games of football helps confidence, and all players and all teams need confidence to win games.”
Two-time Asian champions Al Hilal were also able to make a winning start to their campaign having reached the final last year as goals from Saud Kariri, Yousef Al Salem and Thiago Neves secured the Saudi Arabian club a 3-1 win against Lokomotiv at the King Fahd International Stadium.
And with Iranian champions Foolad Khouzestan drawing with 2011 champions Al Sadd in Ahwaz, Al Hilal are the early pacesetters in Group C ahead of their meeting with the Qatari side next week.
Former winners Gamba Osaka, meanwhile, suffered a setback in their Group F opener as debutants Guangzhou R&F of China caused the tournament’s first upset with a 2-0 victory on Tuesday in Japan.
Moroccan striker Abderrazzaq Hamedallah set Cosmin Contra’s side on their way after 10 minutes at Expo ’70 Stadium and then Wang Song’s deflected free-kick wrapped up the points on the 80th minute.
“I’m very happy, not for me but for the club and the players, because they worked very hard on the pitch for these three points, and these three points are very, very good for us,” said Romanian coach Contra.
And the Chinese Super League club were joined at the top of the Group F table by Thailand champions Buriram United who defeated Korean FA Cup winners Seongnam FC 2-1 in the group’s other fixture at Buriram Stadium on Tuesday evening.
Elsewhere, two-time Asian champions Suwon Bluewings edged 2007 AFC Champions League winners Urawa Reds 2-1 at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Group G on Wednesday, while midfielder Shao Jiayi scored the game’s only goal in stoppage time as China’s Beijing Guoan beat Australian champions Brisbane Roar.
Also in the East, Chinese FA Cup winners Shandong Luneng saw off Vietnamese champions Binh Duong in a rollercoaster 3-2 away victory to take an early lead in Group E, while the meeting between
2006 champions Jeonbuk Motors of Korea and Kashiwa Reysol of Japan ended in a goalless stalemate.
Inaugural AFC Champions League winners Al Ain were unable to break the deadlock against Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia in their AFC Champions League Group B opener and the two sides share second spot behind early pacesetters Pakhtakor, after the Uzbekistan champions defeated tournament newcomers Naft Tehran of Iran 2-1 in Tashkent.
In Group A, Iran’s Persepolis celebrated their return to the AFC Champions League after a three year absence with a deserved 3-0 win > over Qatar champions Lekhwiya , while Saudi Arabia champions Al Nassr shared a 1-1 draw with visitors Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan.
Finally in Group D, 2011 AFC Cup winners Nasaf beat Iran’s Tractorsazi Tabriz 2-1, while Emirati champions Al Ahli shared a 3-3 draw at home to Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli.
CAPTION – Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers began the defence of their AFC Champions League title with a 3-1 victory in Japan over Kashima Antlers on Wednesday.