ACL 2021 East Zone winners and losers: Frontale, Ulsan enter record books

The AFC Champions League 2021 East Zone group stage came to a memorable conclusion on Sunday evening, with the best saved for last as two contenders wrote their names in the history books.

By claiming victories over Beijing Guoan and BG Pathum United respectively, Kawasaki Frontale and Ulsan Hyundai became only the fifth and 6th teams since the ACL era began in 2003 to win all six of their group-stage matches.

The two teams were clear winners from the group stage along with the other six East Zone teams that will join them in the Round of 16 -- BG Pathum, Nagoya Grampus, Pohang Steelers, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Daegu and Cerezo Osaka.

But who else can leave the group stage with their heads held high? And who would likely be feeling like they could have done better?

BG Pathum fly the flag for Southeast Asia

Although it was their debut campaign, that did not stop BG Pathum from being tipped to be dark horses for the knockout round given their meteoric rise in recent times, which saw them win the Thai League 1 in their first season after promotion.

They lived up to expectations as 12 points in Group F was enough to see them progress as one of the three best runners-up, and they showed plenty to suggest they will continue to pose problems for Asia's best sides.

They are quite happy to play on the back foot against stronger opposition with their back five proving incredibly tough to break down, while in Brazilian striker Diogo they boast a frontman capable of capitalising on limited opportunities.

Kitchee depart with pride but same cannot be said for Gamba

Runners-up in Group J, Kitchee observed Sunday's action knowing they needed Daegu's result to go their way for them to advance into the next round, but it ultimately wasn't to be.

The Hong Kong outfit can still head home knowing they have captured the imagination, becoming the first team from their country to win an ACL match while their 39-year-old striker Dejan Damjanovic also became the competition's highest-ever scorer on 40 goals.

The same cannot be said for the other runner-up team that missed out, as Gamba Osaka's woeful form on the domestic form carried over onto the Asian stage.

On paper, they should have easily done enough against Chiangrai United and Tampines Rovers to advance from Group H yet only finished one point ahead of the former with a disappointing haul of nine.

Disappointment for JDT but Chiangrai, Port show positives

Having been hyped as a possible last-16 contender, Johor Darul Ta'zim bowed out in disappointing fashion after claiming just a win and a draw in their six games.

Their four-point tally was the same as in their debut campaign in 2019, suggesting that they have not exactly improved based on the numbers.

Chiangrai, the other Southeast Asian side that featured in the ACL last season, performed better as they claimed two wins and managed back-to-back draws against Gamba.

Likewise, fellow Thai side Port can look back on their campaign with some pride as both their eight-point hauls were the best of all the third-place teams in the East Zone.

Could expanded format result in bigger gulfs in class?

On the flipside of Kawasaki and Ulsan's six-win feats, there is also the less-illustrious record of six defeats in the group stage.

Only seven teams had previously suffered such ignominy, but that number has now been increased by three after point-less campaigns from Kaya FC-Iloilo, Tampines and Guangzhou.

Guangzhou sent a team entirely of youth players while both the other two teams from Southeast Asia were making their tournament debuts, but the results would still have been demoralising.

While the expansion of the competition to 40 teams has been celebrated for giving an opportunity to more teams to be exposed to top-level continental football, it could lead the short-term pain as the less-experienced teams find their feet -- as Tampines and Kaya found out the hard way.