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Asian Eye: East Asian giants felled in ACL

It is a torrid time for the big guns in the AFC Champions League (ACL). The continent’s heavyweight sides have fallen like dominos, leaving the 2012 edition of the competition looking like a pale imitation of what it could have been.

Next week’s quarter-final draw will make for uncomfortable viewing if you are Japanese or South Korean.

No discerning Asian football fan would care to differ that the two biggest, most powerful leagues in the region are Japan’s J-League and South Korea’s K-League.

Although the Australian A-League is on the rise and China’s top division is looking healthier than ever, these two remain in the shadow of the East Asian giants.

Other leagues in Arab nations or Uzbekistan may boast the odd-oil rich club here and there, but no other league systems can match the consistency of the J or K Leagues.

Dominated

The ACL has also been dominated by the two nations. Between them they boast 14 trophies, and you have to rewind to 2005 to remember an ACL final that did not feature a Korean or a Japanese team.

Yet this year, all Japanese sides have been dumped out in the round of 16, and the quarter-finals will go ahead with only one South Korean representative.

It represents a great opportunity for the remaining clubs. Guangzhou Evergrande, now with World Cup winning Marcello Lippi installed as manager, will be smelling blood, and the resilient Adelaide United are also looking hard to beat in this year’s competition.

But there is also a tinge of sadness to losing all of the tournament’s big names before we hit the quarter-finals – all the Goliaths are dead, only Davids remain. Who does the neutral root for when the only contestants are underdogs?

However, there is one remaining Korean club – Ulsan Hyundai, probably the weakest of the four original Korean representatives. They finished last season’s K-League in sixth, and are enduring a stop-start season in this year’s league.

Small fry

In terms of Asia-wide competitions, too, Ulsan are small fry. The only time they have ever won anything continental was the now-defunct A3 Champions Cup, a competition that was so forgettable, only a true anorak would remember who was eligible to contest it.

Going into this season, Ulsan were probably the team that strengthened the least. They lost their lynchpin, former Reading, Fulham and Wolves forward Seol Ki-Hyeon, who left for rivals Incheon United.

They did make one key acquisition however, picking up the mercurial but patchy Lee Keun-ho from Gamba Osaka.

Although their defence and midfield are nothing to write home about, Lee, in combination with the 6’5” Kim Shin-wook, has proved to be a resurgent force. He is a player that can tear holes in most defences, as his latest ACL victims FC Tokyo found out in the round of 16.

But even the most diehard of Ulsan fans would admit that they are still a long-shot for the 2012 ACL trophy. More likely to succeed are Guangzhou, or one of the three Saudi teams, none of whom look likely to roll over for anyone.

Japanese implosion

For the Japanese, who went into the round of 16 with three teams left, this is nothing short of a disaster. Just how all three teams simultaneously imploded, all to unfancied opposition, is nothing short of mind-boggling.

For the Koreans, there is still faint hope. Jeonbuk Hyundai, unstoppable in last year’s K-League and finalists in last year’s ACL, represented the K-League teams’ best hope for glory.

They crashed out in the group stages however, and Korea’s last hope rests with Ulsan.

Some may ask if the tide is turning in the ACL - and if the days of South Korean-Japanese dominance of the competition are over- but I would be shocked to see a similar scenario at this time next year.

The national teams are strongest in these two countries, as is the league infrastructure and industry backing.

Yet there are cracks in the East Asian armour, and the ACL, for this year at least, is a competition that has been left wide open.

By Tim Alper

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

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