|Disappointment for young Esteghlal fans in Tehran as their side fail to qualify despite beating Al Nassar [AFP]
Two late goals from former champs Gamba Osaka powered the Japanese side into the last-16 of the Asian Champions League on Wednesday, after topping Group E with a decisive 2-0 victory over China's Tianjin Teda.
The result capped an overall strong performance by all four Japanese teams – Gamba, Nagoya Grampus, Kashima Antlers and Cerezo Osaka - who, despite the devastating March earthquake and tsunami and resulting suspension of the J-League, all progressed to the knockout stages of Asia's premier football competition.
In other games, Australia's Melbourne Victory failed to qualify, finishing at the bottom of Group E after a 1-1 draw against Jeju. Saudi team Al Hilal took second spot in Group A behind behind Iranian giants Sepahan after winning 2-0 at home against Qatar's Al Gharafa.
Qatari outfit Al Sadd finished top of Group B despite being held to a 1-1 draw at already eliminated Uzbek side Pakhtakor.
There was heart-break for Iranian side Esteghlal whose 2-1 home victory over Al Nassr was not enough to seal a last 16 place as they lost out to their Saudi rivals who finished second in Group B on goal difference.
A trademark free kick by Yasuhito Endo helped deliver Gamba Osaka a place in the knockout stages.
Frustrated by the defensive tactics of the opposition, Gamba looked like making a shock early exit from the competition until Japan playmaker Endo curled a free kick around the wall and into the top right corner in the 73rd minute to make it 1-0.
Tianjin had been intent on securing a draw that would have delivered home advantage in the one-leg round of 16, and Arie Haan's side showed their attacking hand only after falling behind.
The Chinese side had good shouts for a penalty in injury time but the referee waved play on.
With Tianjin committing men forward, Gamba substitute Shoki Hirai broke clear in the dying seconds and was brought down by Tianjin goalkeeper Yang Qipeng, who was sent off. Highly regarded youngster Takashi Usami converted the penalty.
"I am feeling relieved as we got through this stage,'' Gamba coach Akira Nishino said.
"It was a game we played with a lot of extra pressure.''
The win moved Gamba to the top of Group E, ahead of Tianjin on goal difference, meaning Gamba will next host crosstown rival Cerezo Osaka in the round of 16. Cerezo trounced China's Shandong Luneng 4-0 in Group G on Tuesday.
In captain Kevin Muscat's last professional game, Melbourne Victory had five "goals" chalked off for offside - two controversially - and striker Robbie Kruse saw a shot cleared off the line.
But they cancelled out Kim Eun-Jung's well-crafted opening strike with a sweet volley from midfielder Diogo Ferreira, who buried his shot from 20 yards.
Coach Mehmet Durakovic was fuming after Victory, needing a win to have any chance of reaching the last 16, failed to qualify.
"I must have run over a black cat or something," Durakovic told the A-League club's website after Wednesday's clash in South Korea.
"As a coach, you never want to make excuses but the amount of chances we've had and some awful decisions by the referees... we could have definitely deserved to qualify, if not in first spot, at least in second spot."
The last-day scramble finally snuffs out Victory's faint hopes of knock-out football after they lost their first two games but then went on a four-match unbeaten run.
Wednesday 11 May
Al Jazira 1-4 Sepahan
Al Hilal 2-0 Al Gharafa
Pakhtakor 1-1 Al Sadd
Esteghlal 2-1 Nassr
Gamba 2-0 Tianjin Teda
Jeju 1-1 Melbourne Victory
Hangzhou 1-1 FC Seoul
Al Ain 3 -1 Nagoya Grampus
It also confirms the retirement of fiery ex-English Premier League defender Muscat, who will be remembered for a series of much-criticised tackles including January's scything challenge which earned him an eight-match A-League ban.
Sepahan came away 4-1 winners at Al Jazira to ensure a home clash with Uzbek club Bunyodkor in the last 16.
Brazilian Jader Volnei Spindler, better known as Bare, opened for the hosts after 14 minutes but Javad Kazemeyan pulled Sepahan level after 32 minutes before Ibrahima Toure scored twice (60, 71) and Reza Enayati completed the rout for the Iranians.
In Group F, China's Hangzhou Greentown snatched a 1-1 draw at home against Seoul. The point was enough to allow Seoul to move into the top spot, after Al Ain beat Japan's Nagoya Grampus 3-1. But the win for United Arab Emirates' club wasn't enough, forcing them to settle for third while Nagoya retained second to earn a spot in the knockout stage.
The second round of the competition, on May 24 and 25, does not consist of the usual home and away matches, but is a single leg played at the home of the group winners, hence finishing top spot in the group round was of crucial importance.
The competition then becomes two-legged quarter and semi-finals followed by a one-match final in November to decide Asian football's top club honour.