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Chinese clubs flop on Asia's big stage

THE group stage of the 2009 Asian Champions League highlighted the Chinese disappointment and the dominance of Japan's big clubs, a Saudi Arabian resurgence, and high and low points in the Asian Football Confederation's quest for professionalism.

The AFC revamped the 2009 edition of its premier continental club competition, increasing the prize money to US$15 million, expanding the number of teams to 32 and reducing the number of participating nations in a bid to improve standards.

Of the five nations which started with four participants each - ranked highest in the region according to the size and professional standards of their leagues - Japan and Saudi Arabia have all their clubs safely through, South Korea has three, Iran has one and China and United Arab Emirates none.

The biggest disappointment was China.

With the national team already out of qualification for the 2010 World Cup, the 2009 Asian Champions League assumed extra meaning with large crowds, big expectations and serious investment.

Only the domestic champion Shandong Luneng came close to advancing before throwing it away on a night that was, according to Chinese media, a disaster for football in the Middle Kingdom.

Shandong only needed to avoid defeat at the Indonesian home of Sriwijaya this week to progress. Sriwijaya had lost all previous five games and Shandong was leading 2-0 at halftime.

Despite that, the Indonesians ran out 4-2 winners, helping FC Seoul into the last 16.

"It was terrible," Chinese sports newspaper Titan Sports said. "Shandong was lucky not to lose by five, there are no excuses. The coach made some ridiculous decisions."

The paper accused the team of being "selfish," thinking only of domestic league results and not the good of Chinese football.

"Sriwijaya 4-2 Shandong: A result of shame," wrote Chinese portal

Japanese teams have won the last two competitions and are looking good for a hat-trick.

Impressively, Kashima Antlers, Nagoya, defending champion Gamba Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale all booked their places in the last 16 with a game to spare, scoring 53 goals between them. Only a last match Kawasaki defeat prevented all four Japanese clubs topping their groups.

Saudi Arabian clubs are also enjoying a renaissance. Al Ittihad took the 2004 and 2005 titles and with four teams in the last 16, there is a chance of a West Asian team winning for the first time in four years.

UAE's Al Ain took the first continental title in 2003 but despite launching a professional league for the first time, none of the Gulf state's four clubs survived.

The most controversial exit was self-imposed. Sharjah's decision to withdraw from the league was a blow to the AFC's quest for professional standards.

Sharjah was the first to leave to avoid relegation in its domestic league. The UAE club lost its first four matches in Group B and so decided to withdraw and concentrate on avoiding relegation from the UAE top division.

"We have decided to pull out at this time due to the problems that we have in our team as we are now threatened by relegation," Sharjah said in a letter to the AFC. "We hope that the Asian Football Confederation will understand our situation, especially as we do not have any hope left to advance from our group."

The UAE Football Association, which will host the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time next year, asked Sharjah to reconsider, concerned about the image of UAE football.

Attendances have been mixed. More than 30,000 fans attended Beijing Guo'an's first two matches but attendances in Japan, South Korea and Australia were considerably below league averages.

Qatar and the UAE clubs barely managed average crowds of 2,000.


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