SINGAPORE — China’s Guangzhou Evergrande stands poised to reach the AFC Champions League eliminators in what will be a make-or-break week with a phenomenal 28 clubs still in the running for the last 16.
In the penultimate round of games, Marcello Lippi’s expensively assembled team can lose by two goals to Urawa Red Diamonds and still go through as it seek to become the 11-year-old tournament’s first Chinese champion.
Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol are also handily placed, needing just a draw against Chinese outfit Guizhou Renhe to join Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahli and Al-Shabab, the only clubs to have qualified so far, in the round of 16.
But most teams’ fortunes are still far from clear with Central Coast Mariners, buoyed by claiming Australia’s A-League title for the first time, among those hoping to make a late sprint to the line.
Graham Arnold’s men, fresh from beating Western Sydney Wanderers 2-0 in Sunday’s grand final, visit South Korea’s Suwon Bluewings with three clubs separated by just a point behind Kashiwa in Group H.
Korean champion FC Seoul holds a two-point lead in Group E, while the real battle in Group F is between Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Urawa for second spot behind Lippi’s Guangzhou.
Just three points separate Bunyodkor, Pohang Steelers and Beijing Guoan in Group G, with Japanese champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima among only two clubs already out of the running.
Among the West Asian teams, Qatari side Al-Gharafa could lose and still go through behind Al-Ahli if Group C’s other result goes its way.
Iranian giant Sepahan will advance from Group D if it beats Al-Rayyan of Qatar at the Azadi Stadium Tuesday, while Lekhwiya and Uzbek champion Pakhtakor will go through with wins against Al-Shabab Al-Arabi and Al-Ettifaq, respectively.
The top two teams from eight groups of four reach next month’s knock-out round, played back-to-back over two legs from May 14.
Blatter neutral in Asian race
FIFA has dismissed claims that Sepp Blatter supports Yousuf Al-Serkal’s bid to be elected Asian Football Confederation president next week.
FIFA said its president is neutral and “has at no time provided his backing to any of the candidates.”
Al-Serkal, the United Arab Emirates Football Association President, reportedly told regional media he “definitely” felt he had Blatter’s blessing to replace Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar.
Al-Serkal faces Sheik Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, Hafez Al-Medlej of Saudi Arabia and Worawi Makudi, a FIFA executive committee member from Thailand, in a May 2 poll in Kuala Lumpur.
Before meeting Blatter in Zurich last month, Al-Serkal told the Associated Press: “If he chooses to announce (support), I will appreciate it. If he chooses not to announce, I will understand.” — Agencies