The 2021 AFC Champions League is back in town this week with both the West Zone and East Zone playing out their round of 16 matches. Japan’s very own Nagoya Grampus managed to survive an epic showdown with South Korean knockout stage debutants Daegu FC, going down 2-1 in half-time before roaring back and claiming a quarterfinal ticket with the 4-2 win, while in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s very own FC Istiklol had their ACL fairy tale run being brought to a dramatic end thanks to a 90th minute winner from Persepolis of Iran.
Nagoya host Daegu in the first round of 16 tie of the East Zone, with the Toyota Stadium in Aichi Prefecture being the stage for yet another chapter in the Japan-South Korea footballing duel on Tuesday night.
The hosts were stunned as early as the 4th minute after Cesinha managed to blast his way past Mitchell Langerak in the Nagoya goal, however they managed to draw things level in the 12th minute thanks to a powerful thumping finish from new signing Jakub Swierczok, who had been brought in from Bulgarian giants Ludogorets Razgrad.
Daegu reclaimed their lead in the 28th minute, though, after former Buriram United attacker Edgar slammed home a header from a Jeong Tae-wook delivery.
The scoreline remained that way until half-time, with Daegu well-poise to eliminate Nagoya for their first ACL quarterfinal appearance in history.
However, the South Koreans did not account on Swierczok going on the rampage in the second half, with the Polish being boosted by the additions of Yasuki Kimoto and Ryoya Morishita on half-time. And indeed it was Morishita’s precise ball that allowed Swierczok to draw things level with a powerful header in the 63rd minute.
Swierczok then completed his hat-trick only two minutes later as he managed to outmuscle Hong Jeong-un and dispossess him, before firing home a powerful shot past Daegu goalkeeper Choi Young-eun to give Nagoya the lead for the first time in the game.
Nagoya captain Shinnosuke Nakatani then sealed the win and with it progression to the quarterfinals in the 79th minute, nodding home a Mateus corner to make it 4-2 in the hosts’ favor.
Tuesday’s other East Zone round of 16 match saw the clash of titans between defending ACL champions Ulsan Hyundai and reigning J.League 1 champions Kawasaki Frontale. And while Kawasaki had been weakened considerably following Kaoru Mitoma’s departure to Europe, the men in sky blue still put up a decent fight and forced Ulsan to a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes.
Unfortunately for Toru Oniki’s charges, Ulsan were the cooler of heads in the ensuing penalty shootout and Yoon Bit-garam’s shot proved to be the decisive one as the defending champions edged Kawasaki out 3-2.
Four more teams will vie for the East Zone’s two remaining quarterfinal tickets, with Cerezo Osaka taking on Pohang Steelers at the Nagai Stadium and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors facing-off against BG Pathum United on Wednesday.
Torabi Ends Istiklol’s Continental Dreams
Making their first ever appearance in the ACL, Istiklol were drawn into a tough group which contains Saudi Arabian giants Al-Hilal, United Arab Emirates behemoth Shabab Al-Ahli, and Uzbekistan representatives AGMK.
Safe to say, nobody was expecting them to qualify out of the group, let alone win it. But Istiklol did just that, finishing first in Group A above both Al-Hilal and Shabab Al-Ahli, with the former qualifying alongside the Tajik champions as group runners-up.
The round of 16 draw pits Istiklol together against Iranian powerhouses Persepolis, who had considerable ACL pedigree to their name. However, Istiklol do have the home advantage and the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe could prove to be a tough ground for Tehran’s men in red.
Spearheaded by former Sriwijaya FC and Persebaya Surabaya striker Manuchekhr Dzhalilov, Istiklol went on the offensive from the get-go as they were spurred on by a near-capacity crowd at the Central Republican Stadium. Persepolis goalkeeper Hamed Lak were forced into making a number of saves, while his counterpart, 18-year old Mukhriddin Hasanov, kept Istiklol well and alive in the game with an impressive performance between the sticks that belittled his young age.
Despite Istiklol’s best efforts, Persepolis’ experience and pedigree in the ACL eventually shone through, with the Iranians slowly taking charge of the proceedings as time went on.
Eventually, in the 90th minute, Mehdi Torabi managed to curl home a speculative effort past Hasanov and into the goal, ensuring Persepolis’ passage into the quarterfinal while at the same time breaking Tajik hearts, their dream continental run coming to an end.
The West Zone’s other quarterfinal matches saw Al-Hilal advancing to the quarterfinal at the expense of another Iranian giant in Esteghlal, with the Saudis winning 2-0 at the Zabeel Stadium on Monday. Al-Hilal’s sworn enemies Al-Nassr also advance to the quarterfinal, with the Saudis beating another Iranian team in Tractor Sazi 1-0 on Tuesday. And last but not least on Tuesday, UAE’s very own Al-Wahda beat domestic rivals Sharjah 5-4 on penalties to claim their own quarterfinal ticket.