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Asian Eye – Asian Champions League’s giants killing themselves

Everybody loves a “group of death”, regardless of the competition.

And this year’s AFC Champions League seemed to have served up a real gem of a group when it clumped together former “richest club in the world” contenders FC Bunyodkor, 2008 FIFA Club World Cup participants Adelaide United, plus two of the biggest teams in Asia: Japan’s Gamba Osaka and South Korea’s Pohang Steelers. Neutrals wanted fireworks – they are having to make do with implosions.

Although the line-up makes for good reading, this group should have been a two way fight between Pohang and Gamba. As it is, Gamba seem to be on the verge of ACL oblivion.

Pohang are hardly doing much better. As meek as cubs, the superpowers of this group appear to be waving white flags, only two games in.

Uzbek club Bunyodkor have moved on from the bizarre spell that saw them appoint Zico and then Luis Felipe Scolari as manager.

Their line-up no longer contains the likes of Rivaldo, and they have given up making headlines across the world with their pursuit of players like Samuel Eto’o.

Nowadays their playing staff is almost entirely homegrown, with the exception of sometime Slovakia captain Jan Kozak, and former Sheffield United midfielder David Carney. The “megabucks club” years seem well behind them now.

Adelaide are also a club that seemed to be on a slow path to recovery. After the heady days of 2008, they promptly fell back to Earth with a painful bump, finishing the 2009-2010 season rock bottom of the Australian A-League.

Last year, they finished 3rd, hardly a great achievement in a comparatively weak domestic competition.

Contrast this with Gamba and Pohang. Both finished second in their leagues in 2011, no small feat, as only a fool would argue that Japan’s J-League and South Korea’s K-League are not the toughest leagues on the continent.

Both sides looked sensational last season, and both have exceptional ACL pedigree. Gamba won the competition in 2008, and Pohang are the only side to have won it three times. 

Brimming with riches

If both of these sides went out in the Group Stages, it would be the equivalent of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid failing to make the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.

The squads of both clubs are brimming with riches – Gamba’s midfield is led by Yasuhito Endo, a kind of Japanese Steven Gerrard, and possibly the most talented Japanese player of his generation.

Pohang have a side packed full of South Korean international players, including the excellent Shin Hyung-min.

And in the close season, both sides spent well – Gamba bringing in much coveted South Korean international striker Lee Seung-youl. Pohang brought in Romanian midfielder Ianis Zicu, who has scored 16 goals in 18 appearances this season, albeit for two different clubs.

But both sides have had disastrous starts to their domestic seasons. Pohang, much fancied for the K-League title this year, have been abysmal in the first three rounds.

They lost their first match of the season, at home, to local rivals Ulsan Hyndai, drew their second match, and then proceeded to throw away a 2-0 lead at home to draw 2-2 with in a derby match against Busan I’Park.

For Gamba, things are even bleaker – their record reads: Played 2 Lost 2.

It is in the ACL, though, where the real pain has been waiting for both teams. Pohang managed their only win of the season in the away game against Gamba, but the result says more about how dreadful Osaka were than about how wonderfully the Steelers did.

As if to illustrate this, Pohang went on to lose their home match against Bunyodkor 0-2 last week, while an easy win for Adelaide against Gamba sent the Japanese team to rock bottom of the group.

Although both Gamba and Pohang could still both qualify, it seems almost impossible considering their current form. Osaka face Bundyokor at home in their next game on April 3rd, knowing that defeat would all but seal their fate. Their Uzbek opponents, fresh from an away win at Pohang, will have nothing to fear.

The Steelers take on group leaders Adelaide knowing that nothing other than a win will suffice if they are to catch either the Australians or the Uzbeks – another home reversal would spell disaster.

The purple patches both Pohang and Gamba seem to experiencing will almost certainly come to an end. Both clubs just have too many good players. But their almost identical early-season slumps could come at a huge, unforeseen cost – ACL elimination.

By Tim Alper

Tim Alper writes for South Korea’s leading football monthly, Best Eleven

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