Kashima comes from behind to earn spot into Round of 16, while Hiroshima wins five straight at the AFC Champions League 2019
23 May 2019
On Wednesday 22 May, the final fixtures of the AFC Champions League (ACL) 2019 group stage took place, as the defending champions Kashima Antlers came from behind to win over Shandong Luneng Taishan (China PR) 2-1 at home to finish as the runners-up of Group E, while Group F leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima won their away match against Melbourne Victory (Australia) 3-1 to conclude the group stage with five straight victories.
As a result, Kashima will now face Hiroshima in the round of 16, where they will host the first leg scheduled on Tuesday 18 June, followed by the second leg played in Hiroshima on Tuesday 25.
Ito comes off the bench to score a brace for Kashima
In search for their back-to-back title at the ACL, Kashima secured their seventh overall appearance to the round of 16, after ITO Sho, who came onto the match as a substitute, scored two goals within three minutes to give his side a come from behind victory.
In order for Kashima to advance through the group stage, they had to win or draw against the group leaders Shandong. However, Kashima conceded the opening goal to the Chinese side in the 11th minute, when former Belgium National Team member Marouane FELLAINI struck a header into the net from a play following a corner kick.
After taking the early lead, Shandong was in no need to take any risks, as they dropped back into their territory while anticipating for their opportunities to counter. With their opponents dropping deep, Kashima made their efforts to break through by showing quick ball movements, as DOI Shoma, MACHIDA Koki, and NAKAMURA Atsutaka created opportunities, but they lacked quality in the final third to crack open the Shandong defence.
In the 42nd minute, Doi received the ball in front of the goal and shook the net, but his attempt was called offsides. The tides shifted in the second half, as Kashima brought in YAMAMOTO Shuto, who recently returned from injury, into the match in the 55th minute, followed by another substitution made to bring in Ito onto the pitch in the 63rd minute. From this point on, Kashima’s offence was rejuvenated.
Five minutes after Ito was introduced to the match, the first goal was scored for Kashima. In the 68th minute, Shandong made an error to clear the ball from a left corner kick taken by Kashima, and it was Ito who responded to the loose ball to strike the equaliser. The go-ahead goal came just two minutes later, when the ball was connected through the Kashima defence, leading to a counterattack initiated by SERGINHO and Leo SILVA. The final pass was delivered by Silva to allow Ito to score his second goal of the math. For Ito this was his second time scoring a brace against Shandong, after he scored two goals in the first leg against the Chinese side in March.
Kashima held onto their lead to finish the group stage in second place with 10 points, while Shandong remained as the group leaders. Gyeongnam FC (Korea Republic) finished in third place after winning over Johor Darul Ta'zim (Malaysia) 2-0 in the final fixture, as Johor DT finished in fourth place of Group E.
Hiroshima wins five-straight
With the top spot of Group F already secured, Hiroshima rotated nine players from their starting line-up from their recent league match played on Friday 17, as the line-up featured mostly their younger players against Melbourne Victory, who was already eliminated from the competition.
It was the Hiroshima side who scored the opening goal, as MATSUMOTO Taishi converted an opportunity in the fifth minute from a corner kick. Following the goal, Melbourne took control of the ball possession to initiate their attacks from plays made by former Japan National Team member HONDA Keisuke and Ola TOIVONEN but struggled to break through the Hiroshima defence.
The equaliser came in the 70th minute, when Toivonen converted a direct freekick, but Hiroshima retook the lead just three minutes later, when MINAGAWA Yusuke shook the net. MORISHIMA Tsukasa sealed the deal with his goal scored in the 75th minute to give his side a 3-1 lead. Hiroshima held onto their lead to mark their fifth straight victory, as they earned 15 points in the group stage, which was the most points earned among all eight groups of this year’s ACL. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao (China PR) clinched the second spot of Group F with their 1-0 win over Daegu FC (Korea Republic) in the final fixture, bringing down the Korean side to third place, while Melbourne finished in fourth place.
In the WEST division, Al Wahda (UAE), Al-Ittihad (Saudi Arabia), Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia), Al-Duhail (Qatar), Al Sadd (Qatar), and Al-Ahli (Saudi Arabia) clinched the round of 16. Zob Ahan (Iran) and Al-Nassr (Saudi Arabia) has already secured their spot into the next round, but their final group stage match was postponed to another date, and their final rankings will be determined after the match is played.
For the EAST division, the first leg of the round of 16 will take place on Tuesday 18 and Wednesday 19 June, while the second leg will be played on Tuesday 25 and Wednesday 26 June. For the EAST division, the first leg will be played on Monday 5 and Tuesday 6 August, while the second leg will be played on Monday 12 and Tuesday 13 August.
Coaches and Players' Comments
OIWA Go, Coach (Kashima Antlers)
After conceding the opening goal, we lacked our coordination and our plays weren’t fluent enough. We weren’t playing collectively, especially in the flanks, as Doi, Shirasaki, and Nakamura weren’t on the same page as the fullbacks, but I take full responsibility for it. This is something I must take back and fix before our next J. League match. I am proud of my players for coming from behind to earn the win and the spot to the next round. With many injured players, we struggled greatly in the group stage, as we had to claw our ways to overcome the circumstance. Similar to last year, we learned how difficult it can be at the ACL. The away matches were especially tough, as there was no time for us to set our guards down. We hope to learn from the experiences we gained from these two years and implement them to our tactics in the future.
GK KWOUN Suntae (Kashima Antlers)
It was disappointing that we conceded the goal when we were fully alerted. By giving up the opening goal, it made it a very difficult match for us. But we still had 45 minutes left and we just had to tie the match in order to advance through, so I kept telling my teammates to keep their composure. Our opponents were strong in the air, so I had to keep an eye on our team’s positionings. As long as the defence plays well, our offence always scores goals for us. Along with our fixture in the J. League, we will be facing three matches against Hiroshima, who has been playing wonderfully since last year, so we must play with respect, and enter the matches with the intention to win all three matches.
FW ITO Sho (Kashima Antlers)
When I entered the match as a substitute, our team was behind, so I entered the match with the intention to equalise the match. I am glad it went the way it turned out. There was an open space in front of the goal, so I focused on utilising that space by combining with my teammates. The coach also told me to stay upfront, so it felt like my perspective and the coach’s direction was on the same page. After watching the first half from the bench, our offence was creating plenty of close opportunities, so I knew we would score eventually. I really wanted to help the team win, so I am glad I was able to score those goals.
LI Xiaopeng, Coach (Shandong Luneng Taishan)
It was a very intense battle between the two sides, and my players did a great job to execute our game plan. Despite losing the match, I feel like our players did extremely well. Although we had already secured the top spot of the group, we wanted to showcase a positive performance for our fans, so I elected to utilise our three foreign players, including Fellaini. However, QI Tianyu was not at the level to compete at the ACL, and his presence increased the defensive workload for our players on the right side, so I decided to sub him out. It was my mistake to start him in today’s line-up. Under normal circumstance, I will try to utilise the experienced players at the ACL, while giving the younger players the opportunity to gain experience at the domestic league.
Play-offs: Tue. 5 - Tue. 19 February 2019
Group Stage: Mon. 4 March - Wed. 22 May 2019
Round of 16: Tue. 18 - Wed. 26 June 2019
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