Are Nagoya Grampus genuine AFC Champions League contenders after five wins in a row?

Japan's Nagoya Grampus were once a force to be reckoned with in Asia.

Recently they have watched from the sidelines as the likes of Urawa Red Diamonds and Kashima Antlers represented Japan in the AFC Champions League -- with their domestic rivals winning the competition in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

The club that was once coached by the legendary Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, and reached the semifinals of the competition in 2009, have had some rough years since their last ACL appearance in 2012. Grampus were even relegated from the J1 League in 2016 but managed to bounce back to the top division the next season.

Under manager Massimo Ficcadenti, who took the reins in 2019, Nagoya have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts -- claiming third place in the J1 League in 2020 and securing a passage to Asia's premier club competition after an eight-season hiatus.

On Sunday, they took another step in the right direction by becoming the first club from the East Zone to secure a place in the knockout stages of the 2021 campaign after their 2-1 win over Malaysian Super League champions Johor Darul Ta'zim.

The already-eliminated JDT were on the back foot early at the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok after Adam Nor Azlin brought down Mateus inside the box in the third minute, and the Brazilian forward made no mistake from the spot to give Nagoya an immediate advantage.

Hiroyuki Abe scored a stunner to double the Japanese side's lead in the 28th minute. Though Ramadhan Saifullah reduced the deficit before the break and JDT threatened to equalise in the second half, Nagoya held on for the 2-1 victory.

A fifth win from as many matches ensured that Nagoya will advance to the Round of 16 as Group G winners. It is safe to say that Ficcadenti's side have asserted themselves as strong contenders from the East in this season's ACL with a dominant group-stage display.

Meanwhile, K League 1 side Pohang Steelers were held to a goalless draw by Ratchaburi Mitr Phol in the other game. Facing Nagoya in their final fixture on Wednesday, the South Koreans will hope to score maximum points to bolster their chances of advancing as one of the best second-placed teams.

Nothing to separate Chiangrai and Gamba again

A second meeting between Thai League 1's Chiangrai United and Gamba Osaka in three days ended with the same scoreline as a Brinner own goal rescued a 1-1 draw for the Japanese after the Beetles had taken the lead through Felipe Amorim six minutes in.

As a result, the race for the knockout stages from Group H remains wide open with two rounds left to play. Gamba occupy second place with six points and Chiangrai sit third trailing by a single point.

South Korean champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, meanwhile, remain top of the standings with ten points as they overcame Singapore's Tampines Rovers 4-0 on Sunday after Kim Sang-sik made eight changes to the side that thrashed the same opposition 9-0 a few days earlier.

Chiangrai now face a challenging test when they face Jeonbuk in their next match having lost to group leaders 2-1 in the opener. Gamba will face Tampines in their penultimate fixture before taking on Jeonbuk on July 10.

If the Thais do manage to take points away from group favourites Jeonbuk on Wednesday, it could set up a three-way battle for last-16 on the final matchday in Group H.