Southeast Asia Vietnam

Assessing the Chances of East Asia’s Finest (Part I)

The East Asian section of the 2021 AFC Champions League finally gets underway this Tuesday with the first group stage games from Group G. Football Tribe Asia’s Cokorda Krishna Sadhana runs through the East Asian section of Asian football’s premier competition to see how the teams will fare during the group stages and to predict who will join their West Asian peers in the knockout stages. For the first part of this two-parter, Krishna took a gander to Groups F, G, and H to see how the contenders are faring up.

Group F – BG Pathum United (Thailand), Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea), Viettel FC (Vietnam), Shanghai Port (China)/Kaya FC-Iloilo (Philippines)

One spot reserved for Group F will be contested between China’s Shanghai Port and Kaya of the Philippines on June 23rd and with Chinese quarantine measures forcing Chinese Super League clubs to field their U-23s for the ACL, Kaya might fancy their chances here.

However, whoever win that play-off tie will be at the mercy of the inhabitants of Group F. Ulsan are the clear favorites here being the defending champions and all but hosts BGPU, who renamed their Leo Stadium into the Pathum Thani Stadium for the occasion due to AFC regulations regarding sponsorships in stadium and team names will also have a chance of qualifying into the knockouts.

Teerasil Dangda may still have to sit in the sidelines due to his injury but BGPU still has Diogo leading the attack, with Thitiphan Puangchan marshaling the midfield and prolific defender Victor Cardozo manning the backline. BGPU also bolstered their squad ahead of their first continental campaign since 2015, with Chitchanok Xaysensourinthone and Kevin Ingreso being added to a lineup that managed to retain their key players from their Thai League 1-winning season.

Additionally, BGPU’s new head coach Aurelio Vidmar – returning for a second stint with the club – has continental pedigree, having reached the 2008 ACL final with Adelaide United.

Despite losing the likes of Junior Negrao and Sin Jin-ho, defending champions Ulsan are still looking strong coming into their title defense, with Yoon Bit-garam still retained in the Horang-i‘s midfield and former South Korea national team head coach Hong Myung-bo at the help. Underneath Myung-bo’s stewardship, Ulsan are sitting nicely on top of the 2021 K-League 1 table and look set to challenge BGPU for Group F supremacy.

Like BGPU, Viettel managed to retain a good bulk of their league title-winning squad and added some new additions of their own. Bruno Cantanhede may have left the Red Tornado after firing them to the 2019 V.League 1 title, but the season’s top scorer in Pedro Paulo was drafted in to replace him. Former Persija Jakarta duo Bruno Matos and Jahongir Abdumuminov were also brought in to reinforce a squad that still retains the services of Bui Tien Dung, Que Ngoc Hai, Vu Minh Tuan, Ho Khac Ngoc, Nguyen Hoang Duc, Nguyen Trong Hoang, and Tran Nguyen Manh.

Truong Viet Hoang’s men may have started off their 2021 domestic campaign slowly, but they’re now sitting nicely in 2nd place, trailing leaders Hoang Anh Gia Lai by three points. However despite their decent domestic showing, I believe the qualities of both Ulsan and BGPU would prove to be too much for the Red Tornado.

Group G – Nagoya Grampus (Japan), Pohang Steelers (South Korea), Johor Darul Ta’zim (Malaysia), Ratchaburi Mitr Phol (Thailand)

Straight away Nagoya emerges out as my favorites to top this group. They might have only won 3 out of their last 10 games in the 2021 J.League 1 campaign but made no mistake, Mitchell Langerak in the Nagoya goal is a formidable opponent not to be messed with. The Australian notched 9 consecutive clean sheets that helped Nagoya emerge as one of J1 leaders Kawasaki Frontale’s closest challengers this season. Up front Nagoya has the likes of Mateus and Sho Inagaki who can stir up trouble in oppositions’ defenses.

Four out of the five defeats that Nagoya suffered during their last 10 games came against form teams – top four pretenders Sagan Tosu, a resurgent Kashima Antlers, and two defeats against an unstoppable Kawasaki. The Aichi Prefecture-based side’s last match prior to their departure to Thailand was a comprehensive 5-0 win over amateurs Mitsubishi Mizushima FC in the Emperor’s Cup second round. Sure such a win was expected considering the opponents but what’s most important is the team morale is an all time high heading into the ACL after such a wretched run of form in the league.

Fighting it out for 2nd place in this group will be Pohang and JDT, each with their own strengths.

Having added the influential Jin-ho from fierce local rivals Ulsan, Pohang has pedigree in the ACL as one of its two most successful sides, having won 3 titles throughout the competition’s history. Despite their pedigree, Pohang have yet to qualify to the ACL since 2016 until their 3rd placed finish in the 2020 K-League 1 season. They may have lost top scorer Stanislav Iljutchenko to league champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, but the presence of Jin-ho, combined with the flourishing of stalwarts Kang Sang-woo and Song Min-kyu as well as the excellent form of fellow new signing Lim Sang-hyub can turn the Steelers into a force to be reckoned with.

JDT on the other hand had grown strength to strength since their last ACL appearance in 2020. Safawi Rasid has matured into quite the deadly player from the wings while his heir Arif Aiman is ready to act as a capable deputy. Bergson’s loan contract with JDT has been turned permanent by the Southern Tigers, which could provide a significant boost for the Southern Tigers considering the Brazilian’s red-hot form in this season’s Liga Super Malaysia. JDT’s usual suspects are also raring to go – Afiq Fazail, Leandro Velazquez, Safiq Rahim, Akhyar Rashid, and Syafiq Ahmad, while naturalized stars in Guilherme de Paula, Mohamadou Sumareh, La’Vere Corbin-Ong, and Matthew Davies were also present in JDT’s ACL squad.

Unfortunately Gonzalo Cabrera was omitted by JDT’s continental contingent, as the Southern Tigers opt to bring new signing Shane Lowry to shore up their defenses.

This leaves hosts Ratchaburi to prop up the group. Despite being unable to host their games at their picturesque Mitr Phol Stadium in favor of the Rajamangala National Stadium in Bangkok, the Dragons will be delighted that they will make their continental debut this year following their 4th placed finish in the first half of the 2020-21 Thai League 1 season.

Notorious in the past few years for their managerial merry-go-round, Ratchaburi’s tepid form in the second half of the league season saw them finish the season in 8th place and the squad underwent quite an overhaul during the off-season. Gone were Lossemy Karaboue and influential captain Philip Roller, they were replaced with former Beroe Stara Zagora man Junior Mapuku, former Astra Giurgiu man Sebastien Wuthrich, Nukoolkit Krutyai, and Kasidech Wettayawong. Sanrawat Dechmitr was brought in on loan from True Bangkok United while Steeven Langil serves as the club’s new captain following Roller’s departure.

However, the most eyebrow-raising signing that Ratchaburi did in preparation for the ACL was the inclusion of actor-singer Phakin Khamwilaisak into the squad. The 34-year old Monkey Twins star has zero footballing experience to his name and while the inclusion of celebrities in football teams are a rising trend in Southeast Asia – the likes of Raffi Ahmad, Gading Marten, and Atta Halilintar having bought football clubs in Indonesia while singer Phai Phongsaton is a player for Yasothon FC down in the Thai lower leagues – the presence of Phakin within Asia’s premier club football competition would no doubt direct more spotlight towards Ratchaburi.

Group H – Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (South Korea), Gamba Osaka (Japan), Tampines Rovers (Singapore), Singha Chiangrai United (Thailand)

Without any doubt, Jeonbuk would surely become kings of this group.

Sure, the Green Warriors had a drop of form recently – being knocked out from the Korean FA Cup as defending champions at the hands of 3rd tier Yangju Citizen being the highlight of the slump – but made no mistake, they’re still a powerful side.

Korean champions for the past four seasons running, Jeonbuk are gunning to join Pohang and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal as the ACL’s most successful sides, having won the competition in both 2006 and 2016. Former Pohang talisman Stanislav is still continuing his rich scoring form from his former side, scoring 9 times in the league. Han Kyo-won and Gustavo also pitched in with their goals, while former Reading FC man Modou Barrow and Kim Bo-kyung are other notable personnel that Jeonbuk could count on.

Having halted their slump with a 5-1 win away at Seongnam FC prior to their departure to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Jeonbuk will be confident that they have what it takes to dominate Group H.

Gamba, on the other hand, are a club in limbo.

The 2020 J1 runners-up have sacked Tsuneyasu Miyamoto in May after a poor run of form and his replacement Masanobu Matsunami is currently struggling hard to stop the rot. The men in blue-black are currently 17th in the 20-team J1 with the threat of relegation looming above them. They have only won three games, drew five times, and lost seven.

However, to their defense, Gamba were severely affected by a COVID-19 outbreak happening within the club during the early stages of the season, forcing them to play less matches than everyone else.

The likes of Patric, Takashi Usami, and Leandro Pereira will become Masanobu’s trump cards as Gamba seek to revive their fortunes in Tashkent.

Meanwhile, 2019 Thai champions Chiangrai will fancy themselves a shock or two in Uzbekistan. They retained a good bulk of that title-winning squad for 2020 and the same could be said for 2021, with stalwarts such as Bill, Phitiwat Sukjithammakul, Ekanit Panya, Sivakorn Tiatrakul, Akarawin Sawasdee, Brinner, and Suriya Singmui still establishing their presence at the Beetles.

Emerson Pereira will lead the team in Tashkent, now with a permanent contract after winning Chiangrai the 2020-21 Thai FA Cup as caretaker head coach. Emerson had led Chiangrai during their 2020 ACL campaign that saw them beat South Korea’s FC Seoul 2-1 in Doha, Qatar. The Brazilian will hope for more heroics from his Beetles as they seek to better their achievement from last year and considering the state of Gamba right now, they might relish that 2nd place spot in Group H.

Last but not least, Tampines Rovers are set to become Singapore’s second representative in the ACL by the virtue of finishing as runners-up in the 2020 Singapore Premier League season. With champions Albirex Niigata Singapore ineligible to participate in AFC competitions, Tampines are set to follow in the footsteps of rivals Warriors FC (then Singapore Armed Forces FC) as the island state’s representative in Asia’s premier club competition.

A veteran of the AFC Cup, Tampines might be severely outclassed by the likes of Jeonbuk or Gamba, but the Stags will be relishing the chance of duking it out against Asia’s biggest clubs. The likes of Boris Kopitovic, Zehrudin Mehmedovic, Taufik Suparno and Fazrul Nawaz will lead the attack for Tampines, while veterans Daniel Bennett and Baihakki Khaizan will lead by example at the back, with captain Yasir Hanapi marshaling the midfield.

The Eastern Singapore titans might have a slim chance of getting out of Group H, but never underestimate the Stags at your own peril. Like Chiangrai, they might be eager to cause a shock or two and considering Jeonbuk and Gamba’s inconsistent domestic forms, that might be a possibility.

Stay tuned tomorrow as Krishna goes through Groups I and J of this year’s ACL!