Nagoya Grampus became the first team to progress to the Asian Champions League’s round of 16 from the continent’s eastern half after they beat Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim 2-1 to secure top spot with one match to spare in Group G on Sunday.
The Japanese club’s fifth victory in as many matches put them in an unassailable position with 15 points after their main rivals Pohang Steelers were held to a goalless draw by Thai debutants Ratchaburi FC.
Only the group winners and the three best second-placed teams from each group qualify for the last 16 after the AFC expanded the tournament to give teams from Southeast Asia a chance to test their skills against the continent’s big guns.
Group stage matches in Asia’s western zone were completed in the Covid-19 impacted tournament in April.
Nagoya went ahead at the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok on Sunday through Brazilian Mateus, who scored from the penalty spot in the third minute after he was brought down inside the box by Adam Nor Azlin.
Yuki Soma and Kazuki Nagasawa missed chances later but Nagoya managed to consolidate in the 28th minute after Hiroyuki Abe got past the defence and beat Johor goalkeeper Hazik Nadzli all ends up.
The Malaysians however were not dispirited and pulled a goal back in the 42nd minute with Ramadhan Usman scoring on the rebound with a simple shot after Corbin Ong’s earlier effort was parried by Nagoya’s Australian goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak.
Johor could have got the equalizer midway through the second half but Ahmad Bakri could only watch in agony as his thundering shot from inside the box hit the crossbar.
That was the last time Johor got close to the Nagoya goal as they remained on three points with just one win from five matches. Pohang Steelers, meanwhile, were clear favourites against Ratchaburi but the Koreans failed to convert any of the numerous chances that came their way to share points and take their tally to 11 points with one match remaining.
Ratchaburi hadn’t scored in any of their previous four matches in this year’s competition and the trend continued on Sunday too despite coach Seksan Siripong making four changes from the side that lost 3-0 to Nagoya Grampus on Thursday.
Lim Sang-Hyub and Boris Tashchy troubled the Ratchaburi defence time and again but poor finishing proved Pohang’s undoing.
Lim had his shot blocked by Praweenwat Boonyong in the second minute of play and Lee Seung-Mo, Alexander Grant and Lee Seung-Mo also fluffed chances later allowing Ratchaburi to claim their first point.
In Group H, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors hammered Tampines Rovers 4-0 to boost their chances of making the last 16.
Jeonbuk had thrashed the Singaporeans 9-0 on Thursday but on Sunday fielded a new-look team with coach Kim Sang-sik making a whopping eight changes.
That made little difference to the Rovers’ fortunes as they crashed to their fourth consecutive loss as Jeonbuk stayed on top with 10 points from four matches.
German striker Stanislas Iljutcenko scored on either side of the break for a brace for the Koreans while Gustavo and Modou Barrow also helped themselves with a goal each at the Milliy Stadium in Tashkent.
Jeonbuk’s main challengers Gamba Osaka however saw their chances dented after they were held 1-1 by Chiangrai United.
Felipe Amorim had given the Thai side a sixth minute lead but an own goal by Brinner Henrique saw Gamba steal a point, a result that keeps both sides in the hunt.