Friday , April 12 2024

AFC Champions League – Round of 16 – 2nd Leg: 5 things to look out for!

The AFC Champions League 2023/24 returned with a bang last week as the remaining sides in the continental competition faced off in the first leg of the Round of 16.

And the return meetings come hot on the heels as the teams get set to face off again in the second legs between Tuesday and Thursday when the quarter-finalists will be confirmed.

Ahead of the eight match-ups across the continent, AFC Media has selected five things to look out for.

Al Ain target long-awaited quarterfinal return

It wasn’t so long ago that Al Ain were a regular feature in the latter rounds of the AFC Champions League. The inaugural winners in 2002-03 reached the final once more in 2005 and the semi-finals in 2014. Then, with former AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman at the peak of his powers, they came so close to adding a second continental title in 2016 before narrowly losing out to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the final.

A year later they returned to the quarter-finals but 2017 remains the last time they got beyond the group stage. In 2018, they fell at the Round of 16 before group stage exits in 2019 and 2020 were followed by a qualifying round defeat in 2021. However, back in the competition for the first time since 2020 this time round, the Emirati side topped their group with a joint-tournament-leading 17 goals to return to the knockout rounds.

Hernan Crespo’s side faced a tricky first leg away to Uzbekistan’s FC Nasaf and, although they struck the woodwork twice and missed several opportunities to win the match, they will likely be satisfied with the 0-0 draw in Qarshi. Back in front of home support in Al Ain on Wednesday, the three-time finalists know that victory will see them end a seven-year wait to be back in the quarterfinals.

End of the journey for Ventforet?

J2 League side Ventforet Kofu’s incredible road to the AFC Champions League began on June 1, 2022 with a 5-1 win over International Pacific University in the 2022 Emperor’s Cup second round. They went on to beat five teams from the J1 League, culminating in a penalty shootout victory over Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the final, to be crowned champions in one of the most unlikely stories from Japanese football in recent times.

In doing so, they became one of the few second division sides to qualify for the AFC Champions League. And the fairytale didn’t end there as the Kofu club picked up wins over Buriram United and Zhejiang FC, as well as two draws against Melbourne City, to top their group and advance to the Round of 16 – a feat which is unrivalled among the clubs who qualified for the AFC Champions League while in the second division.

Away to two-time champions Ulsan Hyundai in the last 16 on Thursday, they were well beaten as they went down 3-0 in Korea Republic. They now must overturn a three-goal deficit against a continental powerhouse at Japan National Stadium on Wednesday – a task that even for Ventforet could well be a bridge too far. If it is to be the end of the road, it’s been a remarkable journey for a club that has gone above and beyond expectations.

MD1 draw in Riyadh gives Navbahor hope

After a scoreless draw in the first leg between Navbahor and Al Ittihad in Uzbekistan on Thursday, the star-studded Saudi Arabian club will return to Jeddah as red-hot favourites to book their ticket to the quarter-finals. However, tournament debutants Navbahor can take confidence from the last visit to the Gulf country back on Matchday One.

Navbahor’s first-ever game in the continental competition could barely have been tougher – away in Riyadh to four-time Asian champions Al Hilal who featured, among others, Brazilian superstar Neymar. But the Uzbek side were not overawed and stunned their hosts when Toma Tabatadze opened the scoring early in the second half.

After missing a golden chance to double their lead, Al Hilal levelled in the 10th minute of added time to deny Navbahor a famous victory. Despite the disappointment, the draw was hugely impressive and they won four of their next five games to reach the last 16. Now, having held Al Ittihad goalless in the first leg, Navbahor travel to Saudi Arabia – this time to Jeddah – looking for another famous result. They can surely take hope from that fine performance back in September.

Can Bangkok sink Marinos?

Two goals up and coasting after 25 minutes in Bangkok, Yokohama F. Marinos looked set to cruise into their first-ever AFC Champions League quarter-finals. With their star forward line of Anderson Lopes, Yan Matheus and Elber starting together for just the second time in the 2023/24 edition, new Marinos head coach Harry Kewell was enjoying a fine introduction to the competition.

But a mix up at the back allowed Nitipong Selanon to pull one back for Bangkok United 10 minutes before the interval to give the hosts hope and a stoppage-time header by the unmarked Mahmoud Eid exposed more frailties in the Marinos backline as the Thai side secured a commendable draw to ensure they travel to Japan with the tie firmly in the balance.

Marinos will start as favourites but twice before – in 2020 and 2022 – they have fallen at the Round of 16 stage and have yet to make the quarter-finals. The pressure is undoubtedly on the hosts, who will be expected to finally overcome the last-16 hurdle, but Bangkok have already shown they are more than capable of a surprise result by beating Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors earlier in the tournament. The stage is set for a thrilling contest in Yokohama.

Riyadh giants look for smooth passage

With Al Hilal a goal down at half-time away to Iranian side Sepahan and Al Nassr missing chance after chance against domestic rivals Al Fayha, things were not going to plan for two teams with aspirations of winning the AFC Champions League. However, improved performances after the interval ensured things were looking much better at full-time.

Two-time AFC Champions League winners Al Hilal levelled just before the hour through Malcom before stoppage-time goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic and Abdullah Al Hamdan gave the scoreline a little more gloss than it perhaps deserved. For Al Nassr, meanwhile, it was their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, who had missed two great chances earlier in the game, who sealed a 1-0 win with 10 minutes to play.

The two teams go into the return meetings looking perfectly placed to seal their places in the last eight as Al Hilal seek a seventh win on the bounce since their opening-day draw against Navbahor and Al Nassr aim to make it six wins from eight and preserve their unbeaten record in the 2023/24 edition. Only a big surprise would see anything other than the two Riyadh giants progressing.

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