JEDDAH — All the three Saudi sides in the AFC Champions League can advance to the knock-outs Tuesday as a make-or-break week for Asia’s club showpiece gets underway.
Two-time winner Al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia is sitting on a three-point lead in Group B as it hosts Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor, while Saudi Al-Ahli and Foolad Sepahan of Iran can both make it through from Group C.
Group D leader Piroozi Athletic of Iran is on top in Group G, where Saudi club Al-Hilal is breathing down its neck to secure a spot in the next round.
Deep-pocketed Chinese champion Guangzhou Evergrande can also reach the knock-outs on debut.
Guangzhou, which famously made little-known Argentinian Dario Conca one of the world’s best-paid players, will hope to see more returns on its investments when it host former Asian champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
It is among a series of teams which can clinch a round-of-16 spot in the penultimate set of group games to be played around the region Tuesday and Wednesday, with only UAE’s Al-Jazira already through.
Guangzhou, backed by a leading property firm and led by midfielder Conca and Brazilian striker Muriqui, can prove a point for China’s new-look football league by securing the necessary win against Jeonbuk, last year’s finalists.
Guangzhou thrashed South Korea’s Jeonbuk 5-1 in Jeonju in March, and recovered from defeat to Thailand’s Buriram United by taking four points from its double-header with Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol to top Group H by a point.
It is the best-placed team from China’s Super League, which has spent big on star players including Nicolas Anelka in the wake of a major corruption scandal, with Beijing Guoan bottom and Tianjin Teda third in their groups.
Adelaide United, the 2008 runner-up, can also reach the knock-out stages if it beats Uzbek champion Bunyodkor at Hindmarsh Stadium.
Coach John Kosmina said the Reds were hoping to secure progression before its final Group E game, a tricky away trip to Japan’s Gamba Osaka — its conqueror in the 2008 final.
“We don’t want to go to Japan in just over two weeks chasing a result,” Kosmina said, according to a press release. “Because as much as Gamba is bottom of the group at the moment, playing in front of its home crowd it has certainly got a lot to play for apart from pride.”
FC Tokyo and Ulsan Hyundai are raging favorites to go through from Group F with both enjoying a six-point advantage over Brisbane Roar and Beijing Guoan, who are placed third and fourth respectively.
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Nagoya Grampus are in the box seat as they lie three points clear of Tianjin Teda and Central Coast Mariners.
The final group games will be played on May 15 and 16 with the two-legged round of 16 starting a week later and concluding on May 30. — Agencies