News have emerged that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) are considering giving 2021 AFC Champions League qualifying play-off contestants Pohang Steelers of South Korea and Ratchaburi Mitr Phol of Thailand free passes to the ACL group stages following the closure of 2020 Chinese Super League champions Jiangsu FC.
An article from Thai League Central suggested that due to Jiangsu’s closure, a spot has opened up in Group G of the ACL and to fill the vacant spot, the AFC are mulling the possibility of abolishing the qualifying play-off meant to fill a spot within Group G and giving free passes to the two teams set to clash for said spot.
Prior to ceasing operations, Jiangsu were drawn into Group G alongside J.League 1’s Nagoya Grampus and Liga Super Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim, with the last spot of the group being fought over by Pohang and Ratchaburi, who were set to lock horns at the former’s Pohang Steel Yard this April. However, with Jiangsu owners Suning Group’s decision to shut down the team in late February, the Chinese champions, despite not being dissolved just yet, could potentially lose their spot in the ACL. This could open the window for both Pohang and Ratchaburi to go straight into Group G to fill in the two vacant spots.
However the AFC have yet to comment on this, with their latest update in regards of the ACL group stages for the East Zone coming in February 25th, when the confederation decided to shift Guangzhou FC over from Group I to Group J, Beijing Sinobo Guoan from the qualifying play-offs to Group I, and adding Shanghai Port into the play-off round to compensate for Shandong Taishan being kicked out of the ACL due to unpaid salaries.
Should they be given a free pass to the group stages, the upcoming 2021 ACL would become Pohang’s 8th participation in the tournament since it’s inception in 2002-03. Having last competed in Asia’s premier club competition in 2016, Pohang are the ACL’s joint-most successful club with 3 titles to their name, a distinction shared with Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia.
Ratchaburi, on the other hand, are set to make their debut in the ACL, having qualified to the competition by virtue of finishing 4th in the first half of the 2020-21 Thai League 1 season.