The Round of 16 line-up was finalised on Wednesday as the 2017 AFC Champions League group-stage campaign came to a conclusion. Three former FIFA Club World Cup participants booked their passage, with Guangzhou Evergrande and Urawa Red Diamonds progressing from their respective sections and Kashima Antlers, who impressed as hosts at Japan 2016, advancing as group winners.
A quartet of sides, meanwhile, sealed their maiden appearance in the knockout stage. Notably, Iran’s Esteghlal Khuzestan advanced on their debut, while Jiangsu Suning, Jeju United and Muangthong United all made a piece of history by progressing beyond the group phase for the first time.
These qualified sides will battle against each other in the knockout phase, culminating in the second leg of the final on 25 November. The winner will represent Asia at December's Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
Favourites and surprise-packages
The group competition witnessed much drama and countless upset results. Most notably three former winners - Ulsan Hyundai, Gamba Osaka and Western Sydney Wanderers - failed to progress.
Having shone in last year's Club World Cup as hosts, Kashima continued their good form by winning their group. Well-organised and lethal in attack, the J.League champions are among the favourites to win the title. Also impressing were Al Hilal and Lekhwiya, who both progressed with ease. Jiangsu sealed early qualification, while Urawa and Guangzhou both proved themselves capable of prolific scoring.
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Facts and figures
Guangzhou eyes a treble
Despite progressing only as group runners-up, two-time winners Guangzhou are a side to be reckoned with. Having reigned supreme in 2013 and 2015, Luiz Felipe Scolari's side are aiming to complete an Asian treble and thus become the first club to do so.
Japan and China PR emerged the biggest winners, each boasting three teams in the knockout stage. Kawasaki Frontale joined fellow J.League sides Urawa and Kashima in the last 16, while the Chinese Super League is represented by Shanghai SIPG, Jiangsu and Guangzhou.
Some enticing pairings are on offer with two former Club World Cup participants Guangzhou and Kashima vying against each other for a place in the quarter-finals. Shanghai and Jiangsu are pitted together in an all-Chinese affair, while Al Ahli of United Arab Emirates crosses paths with its namesake from Saudi Arabia.
Debutants Esteghlal Khuzestan stole the show by sealing their progression in their maiden continental campaign. All the more impressive was the fact that they came out as the tournament's most efficient team. With just six goals scored from six outings - the least among all in the Round of 16 - the Iranian champions gained just nine points which saw them qualify from their group as runners-up.
The tournament used to be dominated by imported star-strikers from beyond Asia, but this year's edition has so far seen the old order challenged. Topping the competition's goal-scoring chart currently is Persepolis's Mehdi Taremi, who was on target six times as his side progressed. Indeed, the 24-year-old Iranian international has also scored regularly for his country, having netted five times in Asian qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Muangthong raised quite a few eyebrows by finishing ahead of the likes of former winners Ulsan Hyundai and A-League side Brisbane Roar to seal their place among the top two. By doing so, they became the third Thai club - after BEC Tero Sasana and Buriram United - to reach the knockout phase of the AFC Champions League.
Contrasting form of Jiangsu
Courtesy of some brilliant displays by Brazilian striker Ramires, Jiangsu became the first qualified team by sealing their place with two games to spare. In contrast, they have endured a miserable time on the domestic scene. With just four points out of eight matches, they are languishing at the bottom of the local standings.
18 - Guangzhou and Urawa each managed 18 goals during the group campaign to be the tournament’s highest scorers to date.