KUALA LUMPUR: The fall of Japanese clubs has raised alarm bells in the land of the rising sun as both Kashima Antlers and Shimizu S-Pulse were favoured at least to qualify for the semi finals of the US$3 million Asian Football Confederation (AFC)
However, their early exits due to shock losses in their second match, Kashima against Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua and Shimizu against Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma of Korea signalled a black day for Japanese football whose league is regarded as the strongest and most popular in Asia.
Kashima were beaten 3-4 by a fighting Shanghai side while Shimizu were done for by a late goal from K-League's Most Valuable Player Kim Dae-eui to exit from the tournament.
I think we showed with our victory over Kashima Antlers that Chinese football is not so far behind Japan. They did not play to their potential, possibly because of the heat, but the conditions were the same for us.
It was a great result for Chinese football, explained Shanghai coach Wu Jingui after the euphoria of their victory.
Indeed, Kashima who were one of the eight seeded teams in the competition came in with impressive credentials and were touted as one of the teams who might go all the way to the final.
Shanghai now face Thai club BEC Tero Sasana in their final group match knowing that victory will likely bring with it the prize of a semi-final spot.
If Shanghai defeat BEC, Taejon Citizen can still pip them if they record a big win over already-eliminated Kashima Antlers.
Seongnams success over Shimizu in Group B signalled yet another triumph for Korean football which dominated last years Asian football scene from youth level, winning the Asian U-17 and U-20 titles to senior level and reaching the 2002 FIFA World Cup semi finals.
Ironically, Shimizu employs Korean World Cup hero Ahn Jung-hwan and he put a goal against his compatriots, only for them to rise to the occasion and defeat Jung-hwan's team.
Since their success in the 2002 World Cup, Korean football has been on the rise and Seongnams victory over the high profile Shimizu side is yet another exciting chapter in the Korean success story. They kicked off their AFC Champions League campaign with a 6-0 thrashing of Thai club Osotspa.
A victory or a draw in their last AFC Champions League Group B match against Chinas Dalian Shide would top it off and give them a berth in the semi finals.
For Dalian, only a win would ensure a place in the semi finals as they trail group leaders Seongnam by two points.
The semi-final berth in Group D has already been decided with Uzbekistan side Pakhtakor clinching their last four place.
The Tashkent giants were unbeaten and did not concede any goals in their matches against Irans Pirouzi, Al Talaba of Iraq and Nisa of Turkmenistan.
They now await the Group A winners in the semi finals.
Former Senegal coach Bruno Metsu has been doing a wonderful job at Al Ain of United Arab Emirates in Group C and they now look favourites to qualify for the semi finals from that group.
As he did with Senegal at the 2002 World Cup, Metsu has weaved his magic to take his team to wins in as many matches, including a 1-0 triumph over Asian heavyweight, Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia.