- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Fabio Cannavaro’s introductory period as head coach of Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande is complete with the end of the group stage of the 2015 Asian Champions League.

Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning captain now knows that South Korean clubs tend to excel in the tournament after the K-League sent all four teams into the last 16 of the continental championship, while China and Japan managed two each into the second stage and Australia none.

In his first season in charge of the 2013 continental champion after succeeding Marcello Lippi in November, Cannavaro steered Evergrande to the top of a tough group containing defending champion Western Sydney Wanderers, Kashima Antlers - Japan’s most successful club - and Korean powerhouse FC Seoul.

“We were in a tough group and qualified with one round left and I am very happy with it,” Cannavaro told reporters after seeing his already qualified team lose 2-0 at home to the Wanderers on Tuesday. “We’ve been through lots of change this season and overcome many difficulties, but still we managed to qualify as the winner of the group.”

He said the vast difference in football styles intensified the difficulty.

“The Australians are physically better and good at long passes. Japanese is my favorite style of football, they are very technically advanced,” he said. But, “The toughest opponent was the Korean team, they were mentally strong.”

FC Seoul certainly was. Needing a win at Kashima’s home ground in the last group game. Struggling domestically in the K-League, Seoul triumphed 3-2 with a goal in injury time from Colombian star Mauricio Molina. Coach Choi Yong-soo commended his players, who needed a win to advance in the case that Wanderers beat Guangzhou.

“The result was more important than the performance and so our players played with a very high concentration and displayed their full focus and capabilities, although we weren’t thinking about the other game in the group,” Choi said. “We knew Kashima is not an easy side to play and we confirmed that in today’s game, they were a strong side in this group of death.”

There were headlines in South Korean newspapers such as “It’s 2010 all over again”, in reference to the fact that for the second time in five years all four K-League teams advanced.

Suwon Bluewings and Seongnam FC, both past winners of the continental championship, had booked their berths with a game to spare while 2006 champion Jeonbuk Motors completed the quartet with a 4-1 thrashing of China’s Shandong Luneng.

Kashiwa Reysol was Japan’s best performer, topping Group E with a game remaining while a late winner from 2008 champion Gamba Osaka gave the J-League a second team in the knockout stage.

It was not a happy tournament for Australian clubs. Heading into the last group games both Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney had chances of progressing but both were reliant on other results going their way.

Just six months after a lifting the trophy in its debut appearance, the Wanderers crashed out at the first hurdle despite finishing with an away win over 2013 champion Guangzhou.

With a minute remaining, the A-league team was in the top two but FC Seoul’s injury-time goal ended hopes of a successful title defense.

“We won 2-0 at Guangzhou and we couldn’t qualify. It is such a strange feeling. Unfortunately another game’s result was not ideal for us, but tonight we showed the quality of an ACL champion,” Western Sydney coach Popovic said. “We, as a club, will be better for this experience. When you have adversity it can destroy you or make you stronger, so everyone will see a stronger Wanderers next year.”

Brisbane Roar went out with a whimper, losing 2-1 at home to already eliminated Urawa Reds.

The 32 teams are split into east and west zones until the final. In the western half of the draw, Michael Laudrup’s Lekhwiya strolled into the last 16 as the Qatari team won 3-1 at the Riyadh home of Al Nasr to earn a second round match with compatriots and 2011 champion Al Sadd.

There was better news for Saudi fans as 2014 and 2012 finalists Al Hilal and Al Ahli made it through, while UAE also has two representatives in 2003 winner Al Ain and Dubai’s Al Ahli.

An estimated 100,000 fans in Tehran cheered Persepolis on to the second round, where they will be joined by Iranian rivals Naft Tehran.


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