All four Korean teams reach Round of 16 at Champions League
All four Korean teams have advanced to the Round of 16 at the 2021 AFC Champions League, with both reigning champions Ulsan Hyundai and long-term rivals Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors topping their groups while Daegu FC and the Pohang Steelers advanced as top-ranked second-place teams.
Korea is the only country in either the Western or Eastern arms of the Champions League to see four teams advance to the Round of 16. Japan and Iran both had three teams advance, the United Arab Emirates and Iran each had two teams advance, and solo clubs from Tajikistan and Thailand round off the 16.
Reigning champions Ulsan and Japanese club Kawasaki Frontale were the only teams in the tournament to win every single one of their group stages, topping Groups F and I respectively.
Ulsan conceded only one goal in their six Group F games, scoring 13 to take a comfortable lead at the top of the table. The defending champions started things off with a 1-0 win over Viettel on June 26, going on to beat BG Pathum United 2-0 and Kaya–Iloilo 3-0 to complete the first leg of fixtures.
On the return leg — which was actually exactly the same as the first leg as all Group F games were played at Pathum Thani Stadium in Pathum Thani, Thailand — Ulsan started things off with a 2-1 win over Kaya–Iloilo, before settling down to beat Viettel 3-0 and BG Pathum United 2-0.
With all six games in the bag, Ulsan have now won their last 15 Champions League games, having tied their very first game of the 2020 tournament 1-1 with FC Tokyo, before going on to win the following nine games all the way up to the final.
Ulsan now face a significant challenge in the Round of 16, where they will face Kawasaki on either Sept. 14 or Sept 15. Kawasaki also won every game in their group, a potentially tougher contest that included Daegu FC, United City and Beijing Guoan, scoring 27 goals and only conceding three.
Jeonbuk qualified for the Round of 16 after topping Group H with five wins and one draw. Having failed to make it out of the group stage last year, this week's results offer some redemption for the two-time Champions League winner.
Jeonbuk also had a fairly competitive group, with Gamba Osaka and Chiangrai United both able to put up a fight.
The K League 1 winners started things off with a 2-1 win over Chiangrai on June 25, before going on to draw with Osaka 2-2 before taking a decisive 9-0 win over Tampines Rovers to round off the first leg.
Buoyed by that big win, Jeonbuk returned in the second leg — all games were actually played in Tashkent, Uzbekistan — with a 4-0 win over Tampines followed by a 3-1 victory over Chaingrai and a 2-1 win against Osaka.
Jeonbuk now face a much easier path to the quarterfinals, facing Group F runner-up BG Pathum United in the Round of 16. Pathum, who qualified after winning the Thai League 1, reached the Round of 16 in their Champions League debut, but will face a tough challenge in tournament veterans Jeonbuk.
Daegu FC reached the group stage in spectacular fashion, finishing Group I in second place behind Kawasaki, but scoring a huge 22 goals in four wins to top the runner-up table. Daegu dropped both games to Kawasaki, 3-2 and 2-1, but scored a combined 11 goals against United City across both legs — winning 7-0 and 4-0 — and eight goals against Beijing Guoan — 5-0 and 3-0.
Daegu will now advance to the Round of 16 for the first time in the club's history, having tapped out in the group stage during their Champions League debut in 2019.
This might not be the end of the road for the Korean club either, as they will now face Nagoya Grampus, a team that hasn't qualified for the Champions League since 2012, in the Round of 16. Nagoya topped Group G with five wins and a draw, but did a lot less offensive damage than Daegu.
Pohang is the final Korean club to reach the Round of 16, coming in second in Group G after Nagoya but scraping through at No. 3 on the runner-up table with a slightly better goal difference than Hong Kong side Kitchee.
Pohang won only three games, drawing two and losing one. They started things off with a 2-0 win over Ratchaburi, before taking a 3-0 loss to Nagoya and a 4-1 win over Johor Darul Ta'zim to round off the first leg. They beat Johor 2-0 to start the second leg, before drawing 0-0 with Ratchaburi and 1-1 with Nagoya.
Pohang are one of the two most successful clubs in Champions League history with three wins, but this year's appearance is their first since 2016. They will now face Cerezo Osaka in the Round of 16.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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