SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Clubs from the usual continental powerhouses of Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea dominated the group stages of the Asian Champions League that finished on Sunday, contributing half of the 16 teams that progressed to the second round.
In the western zone, where the 40-team tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final, teams from Saudi Arabia won three of the five groups, though they were helped by the country hosting all five groups.
Defending champion Al-Hilal topped Group A, Riyadh rival Al-Shabab finished first in Group B and Al-Faisaly triumphed in Group E. The country was denied a perfect four when Al-Taawoun was eliminated, finishing behind Al-Duhail of Qatar in Group D, led by former Argentina international Hernan Crespo.
“The competition in this group was very difficult,” said Crespo. “When you win five out of six matches and you top this strong group in this continental competition, it shows that you have a group of quality players.”
A major surprise was the failure of Al-Sadd. The Qatari powerhouse, led by former Watford and Valencia coach Javier Gracia, won its domestic league unbeaten. Despite boasting an attack led by former Spain international Santi Cazorla and Ghanain star Andre Ayew, the 2011 champion failed to progress.
Al-Rayyan gave Qatar a second representative in the knockout stages while Shabab Al-Ahli will fly the flag for the United Arab Emirates. Foolad of Iran and Uzbekistan’s Nasaf Qarshi complete the eight teams from the west.
In the eastern zone, apart from Malaysia’s Johor Darul Tazim finishing top of Group I and eliminating 2012 and 2020 champion Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i of South Korea and Japanese title-holder Kawasaki Frontale, there were few surprises.
Strict travel restrictions at home meant that Chinese teams were unable to send their strongest teams to Southeast Asia where all five groups were hosted. Two clubs, Changchun Yatai and Shanghai Port, decided not to enter while Shandong Taishan and Guangzhou FC, continental champion in 2013 and 2015, sent youth players and failed to win a single game.
Other past champions from regional rivals fared better. Urawa Reds of Japan and South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are both two-time winners and progressed. Vissel Kobe won Group J will be joined by fellow J-League side Yokohama F Marinos. Daegu FC of South Korea also advanced.
Kitchee of Hong Kong beat out Melbourne City to move on and BG Pathum United of Thailand completed the eight representatives from the eastern zone.
The second round kicks off in August and the final is scheduled for February 2023.
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