It turned out to be a good day for South Korean sides in the 2021 AFC Champions League on Wednesday as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Pohang Steelers became the second and third clubs from the country to book a place in this season's quarterfinals of the continental competition.
However, the final day of the last-16 action in Asia will be remembered not for the two sides who made it through, but for one team that narrowly missed out on a place in the next stage -- debutants BG Pathum United, who conjured up a monumental effort to take their knockout tie against Jeonbuk to the penalty shootout.
Defending champions Ulsan Hyundai and Japan's Nagoya Grampus are the other teams who progressed from the East region, while Iran's Persepolis, United Arab Emirates' Al Wahda, and the Saudi Arabian duo of Al Hilal and Al Nassr are through from the West region.
Ahead of Friday's draw for the match-ups in the last eight of ACL 2021, here are a few things we learned from Wednesday's action in Asia's premier club tournament.
Debutants Pathum United can return home with heads held high
The odds were stacked heavily against Pathum United in the tie against ACL regulars Jeonbuk. The Thais were a surprise feature of the knockout stage in their maiden campaign in Asia, and facing an opposition of Jeonbuk's stature away at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium was sure to evoke a fair few David and Goliath references.
Making things more difficult for the 2020-21 Thai League 1 champions was the absence of their key trio -- defenders Victor Cardozo and Andres Tunez, as well as striker Diogo, who were all out of the tie with injuries. Also absent was their influential coach Aurelio Vidmar who missed the trip due to travel regulations.
The Rabbits were on the backfoot for the lion share of the first half and it looked like the two teams would go into the break level as Kim Sang-sik's side missed chance after chance. However, Brazilian striker Gustavo had other plans as he pulled the K League 1 side ahead in the stoppage time.
Pathum United were more in the game after the restart and their heroics in the defence was rewarded when veteran striker Teerasil Dangda headed in the equaliser in the 76th minute. The Thais remained under severe pressure for the remainder of the game but stubbornly held on to 1-1 during the regulation time and extra time.
Though misses from the otherwise impressive Sarach Yooyen and Chitchanok Xaysensourinthone cost them a historic berth in the quarterfinals, Pathum United can now build on what was a remarkable debut in the Champions League -- especially considering they were playing in the second tier of Thai football just a couple of years ago.
Are Pohang Steelers ready to conquer Asia once again?
Pohang secured a spot in the quarters of the AFC Champions League for the first time since 2014, after beating J1 League side Cerezo 1-0 at the Nagai Stadium in the final Round of 16 fixture of the 2021 competition.
Pohang once featured in the top echelons of Asian football, but the last time they emerged champions at the top level was in 2009 when they lifted their third Asian crown. Their last last-eight appearance came back in 2014 while they have been altogether absent from ACL since 2016 before a return this season.
Playing in front of the Cerezo fans did not seem to deter the South Koreans on Wednesday as they found the crucial breakthrough 25 minutes into the game through 23-year-old forward Lee Seung-mo. Kim Gi-dong's men were then happy to sit back and defend their advantage while looking to hurt the hosts on the counter.
They might not be as fancied as their compatriots Jeonbuk and Ulsan for a place in the semifinals, but the result on away soil is a fillip for Pohang as they go in search of a record fourth continental title and the standalone moniker of the most successful club in Asia, as they currently share that status with Al Hilal.
The usual suspects live to fight another day in West Region
After making the semi-finals last year, Iran's Persepolis and Saudi Arabia's Al Nassr are once again through to the knockout stages of the Champions League in 2021, but only after being made to sweat it out for the win by their opponents in hard-fought Round of 16 ties on Tuesday.
ACL debutants Istiklol had in store for 2020 finalists Persepolis a hostile environment and an on-field prowess to match at the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe -- so much so that it took the Iranians until the 78th minute to register their first shot on target.
However, the Tajik side's impressive run on the continental stage came to a halt in the 90th minute when Mehdi Torabi's cross deceived Istiklol's 18-year-old custodian Mukhriddin Khasanov on its way into goal. And so, the Red Army's hunt for the ACL crown will continue in 2021 after ending up as second-best in two of the last three finals.
Al Nassr meanwhile had to be content with an early winner against Tractor despite their dominance of the last-16 tie. The decisive strike came courtesy of former Porto man Vincent Aboubakar, who latched onto a pass from Anderson Talisca and fired past goalkeeper Mohammad Reza Akhbari 11 minutes in.
The Saudi Professional League outfit will now join Al Wahda, who defeated Sharjah on penalties in an all-UAE contest, Persepolis and 2019 champion Al Hilal as the four teams still alive in the West.