Japanese sides Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka moved back into contention for a place in the last 16 of the AFC Champions League with two games remaining after claiming crucial wins over Guangzhou Evergrande and Buriram United during a goal-laden Matchday Four this week.
Substitute Hiroyuki Takasaki scored four minutes into injury time to earn Kashima their first three points of the tournament after edging out Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande 2-1 at home.
And with defending champions Western Sydney Wanderers from Australia and Korea Republic’s FC Seoul sharing a 1-1 draw at Parramatta Stadium to remain tied for second place in Group H, Toninho Cerezo’s Kashima are now just two points off the pace with two games remaining.
Former winners Guangzhou Evergrande, meanwhile, saw their lead at the top cut to four points after dropping their first points of the campaign to miss out on securing a fourth consecutive appearance in the knockout stage.
“We’ve got this win as we fought hard through to the end, believing in ourselves,” said Kashima coach Cerezo.
“That is our never give up to the end spirit, our club tradition, and we showed that.”
And domestic treble winners Gamba made it a positive opening night for clubs from the J.League as they claimed a 2-1 win over Thailand’s Buriram in Group F thanks to Kotaro Omori’s 87th minute effort.
The victory moved 2008 champions Gamba level with Guangzhou R&F after the Chinese side shared a goalless draw with Korea’s Seongnam FC, who joined Buriram four points clear of the pair at the top of the table.
hChina’s Beijing Guoan, meanwhile, took another step towards the Round of 16 despite being held to a 1-1 draw by Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds in Group G after Yu Dabao’s opener was cancelled out by Tomoaki Makino’s header late in the second half.
With Beijing three points clear at the top of the table despite also failing to continue their 100% start, Korea’s Suwon Samsung moved clear of Brisbane Roar into second place by the same margin after recording a 3-1 win over the A-League.
In Group E, China’s Shandong Luneng and Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol played out the most thrilling game of the round after sharing a 4-4 draw in CGroup E.
And with a late Abass Cheikh Dieng earning Vietnam’s Becamex Binh Duong a 1-1 draw against Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Kashiwa and Jeonbuk remain four points clear of the Chinese side at the top of the table.
In the west, three second half goals saw Iran’s Naft Tehran climb to the top of Group B following a 3-0 victory over Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia as Alireza Mansourian’s side capitalised on a 1-1 draw between second placed Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor.
“I’m extremely happy for the win and the big result that we got as we were the better side and the players performed the plan very well,” said Mansourian.
Elsewhere, Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia maintained their grip on top spot in Group D despite being held to a 2-2 draw by Iran’s Tractorsazi Tabriz, as Al Ahli from the UAE defeated Uzbekistan’s Nasaf 1-0 to move into second place.
Reigning AFC Player of the Year Nassir Al Shamrani returned from suspension to lead Al Hilal to a 2-0 win over Iran’s Foolad Khouzestan in Group C as last year’s beaten finalists joined Al Sadd at the top of the table after the Qatari side were thrashed 5-0 by Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv from Uzbekistan.
Finally in Group A, a penalty from Mehdi Taremi was enough to ensure Iran’s Persepolis secured all three points in their meeting with Al Nassr from Saudi Arabia to remain at the top of the table, with Qatar’s Lekhwiya two points adrift in second after beating Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor 1-0 in Doha.
CAPTION – Japanese treble winners Gamba Osaka beat Group F leaders Buriram United 2-1 in the AFC Champions League this week to remain in contention for a place in the last 16.