SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — With so many spots still up for grabs in the knockout rounds and so many clubs in contention, the Asian Champions League is raising its profile with an intensely tight competition.
Only six of the 32 competing teams have confirmed their places in the second round ahead of Match Day 6, leaving 10 spots still hinging on outcomes of the last preliminary games on Tuesday and Wednesday.
It's a tight bunch compared with other continental championships. In Europe, the combined total of points collected by the eight teams that finished bottom of their groups was 20; in Asia, the eight last-place teams have a combined 32 points with a game to play.
Asian Football Confederation officials see the closeness as vindication of a decision to expand the 2014 edition to 19 member federations.
"The new competition format and the success of the Chinese clubs has made a great improvement on and off the field," Alex Soosay, the AFC's General Secretary, told The Associated Press. "It is quite positive that the competitiveness of the tournament will encourage participating clubs and leagues to build and strengthen themselves. This will help raise the standard of the competition in the end."
Soosay credited the introduction of a club licensing system in 2011 with improving the standard.
"This has helped clubs become more professional, technically strong, financially sustainable and maintain a good governance with transparency," he said.
Competition is particularly tight in Group G, with all four teams locked on seven points ahead of the last games.
Defending champion Guangzhou Evergrande started well but has had successive losses at Jeonbuk Motors and Melbourne Victory. Defeat to Japan's Yokohama F. Marinos will see the big-spending Chinese club exit the competition and lose the opportunity to become the first team to defend the Asian title since Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia in 2005.
"It all goes down the last match, we still have the chance to continue our adventure," said Guangzhou coach Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title. "If we lose at home against Yokohama, then it's right that we go out. After losing in Korea and losing in Australia, if we lose at home then we don't deserve to go through."
Melbourne needs a win at Jeonbuk to advance. When the draw was made, few gave the A-League team a chance in a group that contained powerhouses from China, Japan and South Korea. The impressive 2-0 win gave Victory a chance to progress to the knockout stage for the first time.
"From the start I said 'We want to qualify, we want to get out of the group stage,'" coach Kevin Muscat said. "At the start maybe it wasn't taken too seriously when everyone had seen our group and the difficulties . but in a funny way it's probably galvanized the (team). We go to Jeonbuk in our last game now with our destiny in our own hands."
Other A-League clubs can progress. The Western Sydney Wanderers, on debut in the tournament, need just a point at home to already-eliminated Guizhou Renhe of China, while Central Coast Mariners have a more difficult task but can progress with a win at the home of Japanese champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Apart from Adelaide United's surprise march to the final in 2008, A-League teams have struggled to make an impact in the continental tournament. Having more than one representative in the knockout stage would be significant, especially as all three teams lost their opening games back in February.
South Korea and Japan could each have four teams progressing, depending on results this week. The K-League already has one team through — the Pohang Steelers qualified last week and are the only club from the eastern half already to secure a place in the last 16.
Diego Forlan and Cerezo Osaka need to win at China's Shandong Luneng to be sure of progression.
There are few places at stake in the western half, with only three second-round spots available, although Group D remains wide open.
Al Sadd, the 2011 champion, started well but two heavy defeats have left the Qatari team needing a win at home to Al Ahli of UAE to advance. The visitors only need a point to advance, as does Saudi club Al Hilal, which is at home to Iran's Sepahan.
United Arab Emirates powerhouses Al Ain, whose star striker Asamoah Gyan of Ghana tops the goal-scoring charts with seven this season, and Al Jazira are already through, along with Saudi clubs Al Ittihad and Al Shabab and Iran's Foolad Khouzestan.