108 days have passed since Guangzhou Evergrande were crowned 2013 Champions, and while we were served a great entrée with the entertaining playoff rounds there is nothing like a main course.
And what a main course!
On the opening night there were a number of intriguing battles, especially in Group E. Shandong Luneng have put together a quality side and, on paper at least, look like they could pose domino online a threat to Guangzhou’s dominance of China over the last three years.
They were at home to Buriram United, who shocked everyone last year when they made the Quarter Final after coming through qualifying. Surely no one would underestimate the Thai side this time around?
The two were pitted together in the opening encounter of the group stage, an oddly timed afternoon kick off in China. It was a great way to start the new campaign, with both teams attacking from the outset. Shandong had a penalty saved before finally taking the lead in the 83rd minute after Hao Junmin’s perfectly weighted pass split the Buriram defence and allowed for Liu Binbin to finish coolly past Siwaruck.
They could be forgiven for thinking they had the three points in the bag as they entered stoppage time, however Buriram pushed forward and from a set piece they found the equaliser after the Shandong defence couldn’t clear the ball and substitute Adisak Kraisorn tapped home the simplest of goals.
Once again the Thai champions had manage to pull off the upset, earning a valuable point on the road.
There were storylines everywhere you looked across all groups, and many questions were answered.
How would 2013 runners-up FC Seoul cope after losing captain Ha Dae-sung and leading scorer Dejan Damjanovic to China in the off-season? Albeit against a poor Central Coast side the answer is fairly well, with the Korean side controlling the game from start to finish and fully deserved their 2-0 win, even if they were awarded one of the softest penalties you are likely to see.
Could Diego Forlan help propel Cerezo Osaka of the J-League to continental success? It was probably asking too much to expect Forlan to have such an immediate impact, but things looked good when Cerezo’s now-almost forgotten star, Yoichiro Kakitani, scored a classy goal to give the away side the lead. But Pohang are a tough nut to crack at home, having only been beaten twice at home in the ACL since 2008 and so it proved again when Bae Chun-suk slotted home in the 61st minute.
In West Asia one of the more entertaining games was Al Jazira’s 3-2 win over Al Rayyan. In a match littered with terrible defensive errors, it was the Abu Dhabi side, playing at home in front of a healthy crowd of over 13,000 that emerged victorious thanks to a masterclass from Moroccan attacker Abdelaziz Barrada, who laid on the assist for the first and third goals and scored the second himself.
UAE clubs have promised over the years to progress deep into the tournament, but none have. A couple of Round of 16 appearances, one to Al Jazira in 2012, has been the return over the last couple of years.
But this season they have a couple of clubs who could and should do well, Al Jazira being one. The others include the Al Ain, with the goal-scoring machine that is Asamoah Gyan and Omar Abdulrahman, arguably the hottest young talent in Asia, and Al Ahli who sit six points clear at the top of the Arabian Gulf League.
Al Ahli travelled to Saudi Arabia to take on Al Hilal in one of the most mouth watering clashes of Matchday 1. It was the UAE side that raced to a 2-0 lead shortly after half time with two goals in five minutes putting them on course for all three points and a crucial away victory. But Al Hilal hit back with two goals to Nasser Al Shamrani to ensure it finished at 2-2 in front of over 38,500 fans in Riyadh.
One of the all-time great upsets in the ACL was on the cards at half time in Guangzhou when Australia’s Melbourne Victory led the defending champions 2-0 after goals to Pablo Contreras and Leigh Broxham, who scored arguably the goal of the tournament so far with a thundering volley just before half time.
But after getting the shock of their lives in the first half, the true Guangzhou emerged after half time and steamrolled Melbourne in a dominant display that will sound warning bells all across Asia. Despite only being at the club for a matter of weeks, new signing Alessandro Diamanti showed enough to justify why Guangzhou chased so hard for his signature.
In the other Group G game it was Jeonbuk Hyundai who took all three points against a poor Yokohama F.Marinos, while in their ACL debut Western Sydney Wanderers scored one of the fastest goals in ACL history when Brenton Santalab scored after 42 seconds, but the quality of Ulsan won out as they punished an unusually sloppy Wanderers defence with three unanswered goals.
While some dinosaurs in Australia continue to deride the ACL as a “pointless” and “second-rate” competition, the action on the pitch suggests otherwise. It’s only going from strength to strength. And if the action of the opening matchday is any indication we’re in for a stunning 2014 AFC Champions League.