A-Leagues clubs in Asia: City dealt Champions League blow as late equaliser complicates path to knockouts

Melbourne City concede dramatic late equaliser to Zhejiang in crucial AFC Champions League tie | Highlights

Melbourne City’s chances of progression to the knockout phase of the AFC Champions League were dealt a major blow on Tuesday night, with a late equaliser earning Zhejiang FC a point in a 1-1 draw at Ikon Park.

City began the night second behind Ventforet Kofu in Group H, but level on eight points; only the group winner qualifies for the knockouts automatically, with the three best second-placed finishers in groups across the East Region joining the group winners in the knockouts.

A second-half goal to Tolgay Arslan put City in the box seat to earn all three points, but then came a 99th-minute dagger in the form of a headed goal by Nyasha Mushekwi to earn Zhejiang a late draw.

Meantime Ventforet’s slender 3-2 win over Buriram United ensured the Japanese club finished the night on top of Group H. City finished the group stage on nine points; they started the night as the fourth-best second-placed team and now face a nervous wait to find out their Champions League fate.

Zhejiang defender Wang Dongsheng earned a red card after Mushekwi’s winner for a rash challenge on Jamie Maclaren, while City will be nervously waiting an update on the health of Socceroos winger Mathew Leckie who limped off the pitch after an hour with an apparent upper leg injury.

Arslan was named man of the match post-game, but was a dejected figure as he came to terms with the reality of the defeat.

“It’s hard to speak after such a game,” Arslan said.

“Maybe we should closed the game earlier, but it’s hard to find words now.

“I don’t know if we can go through still, but normally we said we don’t want to look for the opponent’s (results), and now we put ourselves in that situation. Of course, we are not happy with that.

“We have to be focused. It wasn’t our best game. Also not my best game, but still I could (have made) the difference… If you concede a goal from a corner kick, in the end, it’s unlucky.

“I said before: I don’t want to look at the opponent’s (results). But now, it’s our only chance.”

Featured image credit: 2023 Asian Football Confederation (AFC)

It was a nervy first half at Ikon Park, with neither side wanting to fall behind and it showed as the action ebbed and flowed.

An Arslan corner on 16 minutes was almost diverted into the back of Zhejiang’s net by Jean Evrard Kouassi, with his attempted clearance headed just past the back post and out for a corner.

Gu Bin threatened to break the deadlock down the other end, with two opportunities thwarted firstly by a Callum Talbot block, and then by a smart Jamie Young save. 

Just seconds after the latter Gu chance came City’s best opportunity of the first half, with Leo Natel squaring the ball to Arslan by the penalty spot. His first-time shot deflected off a Zhejiang defender and just past the post.

At half-time, Ventforet Kofu led Buriram United by three goals to nil, while City v Zhejiang remained goalless. The reality of the half-time results meant City were very unlikely to finish the night as group winners, and so attention turned toward strengthening their grip on second spot with an encouraging second-half display.

But the tide turned quickly in the second half.

Zhejiang had a big chance to go 1-0 up when Mushekwi headed over the bar from close range after a Kouassi cross. Mushekwi pleaded with the referee to award a penalty and the claims were warranted after Aziz Behich’s contact in his back – but play resumed with a goal kick.

There was another contentious moment down the other end, when City midfielder Steven Ugarkovic put the ball in the back of the net. Marin Jakolis found Ugarkovic at the back post to finish but Leckie was pulled up for a foul at the near post on defender Nok-Hang Leung, dragging him down as the ball skipped through to his City teammate to score.

The entertaining start to the second half continued as City, after Ugarkovic’s offside strike, broke the deadlock through Arslan.

Then came news from around the grounds: Ventforet had been pegged back by Buriram, with two early goals in the second half reducing the Japanese club’s lead from 3-0 at half-time to 3-2 after 55 minutes.

City captain Jamie Maclaren came off the bench shortly after due to an apparent upper leg injury to Leckie. The Socceroos forward is hopeful of regaining his place in the national team squad for the Asian Cup in January after an off-season knee injury; he limped off the field in the 61st minute, moving gingerly after an awkward twist in possession.

Behich failed to make it 2-0 in the 65th minute when his strike from a tight angle was parried by Zhejiang keeper Zhao Bo.

City were then sent to the spot after a clumsy challenge by Gao Di on Harry Politidis, who was sent crashing to the ground in the box after a challenge from behind from the Zhejiang substitute.

But referee Kim Hee-gon was advised to review the incident by VAR Kim Jong-hyeok, and after doing so adjudged Gao had got a slender touch on the ball before taking down Politidis and reversed his decision to award a penalty.

In the 99th minute, Zhejiang found the equaliser with Mushekwi’s heading Zhejiang back on level terms from a late corner.

Wang Dongsheng earned a late red card for a reckless challenge on Maclaren but the final whistle blew without a change to the 1-1 scoreline.

What it means

Melbourne City began the night as the fourth best second-place side in the Eastern Region, and that’s where they remain after the late equaliser against Zhejiang.

But what does it mean for their qualification hopes?

Ulsan Hyundai have claimed one of three places in the knockout phase as a second-place finisher – and now it all rests on the results of two teams in Groups G and F respectively: Incheon United and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Both Incheon and Jeonbuk are on nine points – level with City – but Incheon have a greater goal difference, which Jeonbuk – level on +2 goal difference with City – have scored one more group stage goal (nine to City’s eight) giving them the ascendancy on the second-place standings.

Ranking of second-placed teams: Eastern Zone

1I Ulsan Hyundai (Qualified)6312128+410Round of 16
2G Incheon United5302118+39
3F Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors530297+29
4H Melbourne City623186+29
5J Urawa Red Diamonds (E)6213129+37

Incheon face Kaya FC tomorrow at 7pm (AEDT). Should Kaya win by two goals or more, City would jump Incheon to claim a spot in the knockouts.

Jeonbuk, meanwhile, face Bangkok United at home tomorrow at 9pm AEDT. Should Bangkok win, City would jump Jeonbuk into one of three qualification positions.

The moment

A devastating late equaliser for Zhejiang came one minute after the eight additional minutes added to the 90 – and it’s badly damaged City’s hopes of progression to the knockouts.

A win wouldn’t have taken City to the top of Group H – but an 11-point total at the end of the group stage would have put the A-Leagues side in a strong position to progress as one of the three best second-placed sides in the Eastern Zone.

Now, City must wait for the remainder of the group stage fixtures to play out tomorrow evening to know whether they’ll have a spot in the next phase of the Champions League.

Post-game, City boss Vidmar lamented what transpired at the death as Mushekwi rose unmarked to head home Zhejiang’s equaliser.

“Very disappointing. That hurts a lot, because it was the last minute, and we just didn’t deal with that corner very well at all,” Vidmar said.

“Disappointed because I thought the second half, although it was a bit of a 50-50 game first half, I thought we started that second half really well, scored, started to create a few more chances in behind the defence. Then we just, again, like last week, were not managing that last end phase of the game too well.”

The talking point

City boss Vidmar has suggested Mathew Leckie is set for scans after suffering a leg injury just before the hour mark of Tuesday night’s draw with Zhejiang.

Leckie played from the start at Ikon Park, filling in at the point of City’s attack in place of Jamie Maclaren who took his place on the bench to rest an ankle injury that he’s carried through recent games, Vidmar revealed.

Maclaren replaced Leckie off the bench in the second half; without specifying the injury suffered by the City and Socceroos star, Vidmar said: “He felt a bit of pain in the back of his leg, I’m not really sure what it is. 

“We’ll just have to wait and assess with the medical staff tomorrow and the next couple of days.”

When asked if Leckie would go for scans, Vidmar replied: “Probably. I’ll leave that to the medical department. We’ve got a pretty good medical department here, so we’ll just see what happens.”

And as for Maclaren: “He’s (been) carrying a knock on his ankle (for) the last couple of games,” Vidmar said.

“He finds it difficult to put a lot of weight and turn on it, so I thought it was probably a good idea to give him a bit of a rest… we played Lecks up front so that was all fine.

“It’s bone,” Vidmar added, ruling out a muscle injury. 

“It’s just a little bit ginger and has been for the last couple of games, so we’ve been trying to manage it. He’s played a lot of minutes as well.”