Seven things we learned from AFC Champions League as Hong Kong’s Kitchee face a fight
Chinese Super League sides Shanghai SIPG and Tianjin Quanjian get off to winning starts but Hong Kong champions have work to do
The AFC Champions League kicked off in the East on Tuesday night and gave us our first glimpse of Hong Kong’s Kitchee in Asia’s premier continental competition.
The Hong Kong Premier League Champions hardly disgraced themselves but still have plenty of work to do, while Chinese Super League sides Shanghai SIPG and Tianjin Quanjian are nicely poised.
Here’s what we learned from match day one:
1. Kitchee can take heart
As only the second team from Hong Kong to make it to the Champions League group stages, Kitchee are in relatively uncharted territory but the record that does exist from Eastern’s pioneering campaign last season makes for sobering reading.
Eastern took one point from their six games and they kicked it all off with a 7-0 defeat by Guangzhou Evergrande.
Kitchee’s 3-0 loss to Tianjin, a team that finished third in last year’s Chinese Super League, is not a disaster considering the difference in budgets, quality of players and individual experience. It is something to build on but they will need to get a shot on target and can’t afford to help the opposition out by putting the ball into their own net, as Paulinho did in the North China Port.
Watch: Kitchee highlights
2. It’s not going to get any easier for Kitchee next week
South Korean champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors started with three points after beating Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol 3-2 on Tuesday, and will have plenty to prove after missing last year’s AFC Champions League because of suspension for match fixing.
They cantered to the K-League last season and have been champions of Asia on two occasions. Three goals and a win in their first game shows they are in contention to claim a third crown this year.
That’s not good news for Kitchee, whom Jeonbuk face at Hong Kong Stadium next Tuesday.
Watch: Jeonbuk highlights
3. Jeonbuk aren’t impenetrable
Two long balls saw Kashiwa Reysol two goals to the good in South Korea after just 27 minutes, thanks to some questionable goalkeeping from Hong Jeong-nam.
Hong raced off his line only to be lobbed by Ramon Lopes for the opener, before palming out a weak save to Ataru Esaka, who tapped the ball into an empty net.
Kitchee will surely look to counter-attack against one of the best teams on the continent and get the ball forward as quickly as possible. That and hope they get some free kicks around the box for Diego Forlan to test Hong.
Watch: SIPG highlights
4. Shanghai SIPG could have a field day in group F
Manager Vitor Pereira and his players will be glad to have come away from their trip to Kawasaki Frontale with a 1-0 victory thanks to Elkeson’s goal after dealing with illness and injuries.
Melbourne Victory and Ulsan Hyundai sharing a 3-3 draw in Australia in the other game in their group will have made SIPG’s win all the sweeter.
Hulk finished last season as the AFC Champions League top scorer and fellow Brazilian Elkeson has proved his prowess over the years with Guanghzou Evergrande as well as at SIPG.
After getting through a difficult opener, the pair – plus Wu Lei and Oscar – will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of getting some goals under their belts in the rest of the group stage.
Watch: Melbourne Victory highlights
5. Tianjin the happier debutants
A goal from Anthony Modeste broke the deadlock against Hong Kong’s Kitchee, the French striker leaping high to head home.
The former Cologne man was also involved in his side’s second goal, when his shot was diverted into Kitchee’s net by Paulinho.
Quanjian’s third goal was the pick with Sun Ke peeling away from two Kitchee defenders to nod in Wang Yongpo’s deep cross.
The goals all came with a period of seven first-half minutes and the Chinese Super League side were home and dry, untroubled and able to play the game out comfortably. Top of the group after one game is all they could have asked for.
Watch: Elkeson goal
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) 13 February 2018
6. AFC Champions League pedigree comes to the fore
Two of Tuesday’s games were decided by players who have had a large say in victorious AFC Champions League campaigns earlier in their careers – and despite their increasing years, they still have what it takes on the pitch.
SIPG’s Elkeson showed his trademark calm to chest the ball down in the middle of the Kawasaki defence and his shot was too strong for keeper Jung Syung-rong. The Brazilian has two Champions League titles from his time at Guangzhou Evergrande and will be vital if SIPG are to go further than last season’s run to the semi-finals.
Jeonbuk may have won the continental crown in 2016 but it is seven years since Lee Dong-gook was named top scorer and MVP as his side finished runners-up.
The 38-year-old rolled back the years to bag a double for Jeonbuk and seal their dramatic comeback against Rashiwa – his goal to put the team ahead was the pick of the night. He also stretched his lead out in front as the AFC Champions League top scorer.
Watch: Lee Dong-gook goal
84' GOAL! 3-2 @Jeonbuk_hyundai
Just listen to the home crowd ROAR, after Dong-Gook lobs it into the top-right corner! What can Kashiwa Reysol do with six minutes to go?#ACL2018 #JBMvKSW pic.twitter.com/WpcJTA3LUv
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) 13 February 2018
7. It’s very early in the season – maybe even too early
SIPG and Tianian Quanjian looked sharper than in their AFC Champions League playoffs. Both will feel heartened by starting off with three points, even if they were banking on them as a bedrock for tougher games ahead, but the performances from Chinese clubs were pretty much you would expect from teams in the throes of preseason.
The same goes for the J-League and K-League sides that make up the other spots in groups E and F. Of the four games last night, only Kitchee and Australia’s Melbourne Victory have got their regular domestic seasons underway.
It would be great to see the respective domestic leagues re-arrange their calendars to help their sides’ causes in the AFC Champions League.