Former winners Gamba Osaka and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors joined Beijing Guoan, FC Seoul, Emirati club Al Ahli, Naft Tehran, Lekhwiya and Persepolis in claiming the remaining places in the last 16 of the AFC Champions League this week, although defending champions Western Sydney Wanderers were eliminated.
The eight teams will line up in the two-legged Round of 16 alongside Kashiwa Reysol, Guangzhou Evergrande, Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia, Al Hilal, Al Ain, Al Sadd and Seongnam FC who had qualified ahead of the final round of group ties.
Former finalists FC Seoul were among four sides from the Korea Republic to book their place in the second phase, but did so in dramatic fashion as a stoppage time winner from former winner Mauricio Molina secured a 3-2 victory over Japan’s Kashima Antlers that took Choi Yong-soo’s side through as Group H runners-up ahead of Australia’s Western Sydney.
“The result was more important than the performance, and so our players played with a very high concentration and displayed their full focus and capabilities,” said Choi following Tuesday’s win in Japan.
“We often discussed that we would have to win to get through to the next round, and we spoke about this again at half-time, so we stayed with our attacking football throughout.”
Semi-finalists last year, FC Seoul will now face J.League champions Gamba Osaka after the 2008 winners defeated Seongnam 2-1 in Japan to win Group F.
Kim Hak-bum’s Seongnam side, meanwhile, will face China’s Guangzhou Evergrande who had already won Group H before Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat to Western Sydney, who bowed out of the tournament after finishing just a point behind second-placed FC Seoul.
K-League Classic champions Jeonbuk also finished in second place behind Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol in Group E after cruising past China’s Shandong Luneng 4-1 in their winner-take-all encounter in Jeonju on Wednesday to secure a meeting with Group G winners Beijing Guoan.
The Chinese capital city club shared the points with already-qualified Suwon Samsung the day before to clinch the group by virtue of their superior head-to-head record over the Koreans, who will play a Kashiwa after the Japanese side lost 1-0 to Vietnam’s Becamex Binh Duong in their final group stage tie.
In the West, Al Ahli of the United Arab Emirates were indebted to a pair of late headers from captain Ahmed Khalil to secure a 3-2 win over Iran’s Tractorsazi Tabriz which, coupled with Nasaf’s goalless draw with Group D winners Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia, secured them a Round of 16 tie with compatriots and Group B table toppers Al Ain.
“Our main target was to advance to the knockout stage of the AFC Champions League and now we achieved our target,” said Al Ahli coach Cosmin Olaroiu.
“We expected a tough match, but our players played with a great fighting spirit which helped us to win.”
Group B runners-up Naft Tehran from Iran will face-off against Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia, despite losing 3-0 in Al Ain of the UAE after Al Shabab posted a surprise 2-0 win over Pakhtakor.
Finally on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal secured top spot in Group C following a 2-1 win over runners-up and fellow former Asian champions Al Sadd, while Iran’s Foolad Khouzestan claimed third place with a 1-0 victory over Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv.
Al Hilal will face Group A runner-up Persepolis from Iran, who advanced thanks to a 2-1 win over Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor, while Al Sadd will take on Group A winners and fellow Qatar Stars League side Lekhwiya.
CAPTION – Former finalists FC Seoul from Korea Republic edged out Japan’s Kashima Antlers 3-2 to secure a meeting with J.League champions Gamba Osaka in the last 16 of the AFC Champions