When the 2022-23 AFC Champions League East Zone knockout round began last Thursday, hope sprang eternal for Southeast Asian football with two contenders gracing the Round of 16.
Four days on -- and then there were none.
It is Urawa Red Diamonds who have emerged as the villain, claiming successive 5-0 and 4-0 routs of Malaysia Super League champions Johor Darul Ta'zim and Thailand's BG Pathum United in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals respectively to end Southeast Asia's participation for another campaign.
Still, considering football in the region is still lagging behind the likes of Japan and South Korea, what transpired over the past few days does not necessitate a failure.
Instead, success should be determined by how far the ASEAN teams have succeeded in narrowing the gap to the East Asian heavyweights.
So did Southeast Asian football succeed overall in the 2022-23 edition of Asia's premier club competition?
LION CITY SAILORS (SINGAPORE)
We start off with the teams that fell short in the group stage and -- from those four -- none came closer to progressing than Singaporean debutants Lion City Sailors.
Tasting top-level continental football for the first time, the Sailors got off to a disappointing start when they were trounced 4-1 by Urawa but they bounced back with a stunning 3-0 win over Daegu.
The Sailors were ultimately to finish with a creditable two wins to their names but a surprise 0-0 draw with an understrength Shandong Taishan was ultimately a big blow to their prospects of reaching the knockout round.
Grade: B. The stalemate with Shandong was a blemish on an otherwise decent maiden voyage in the ACL for the Sailors.
UNITED CITY (PHILIPPINES)
For some time now, United City have been the flagbearers for Philippine football -- even in their previous guise as Ceres-Negros.
While they gave a respectable account of themselves in their ACL debut last year, it feels like they took a backward step this season.
United City lost all six of their encounters and were uncompetitive in most of their outings barring a narrow 1-0 opening defeat to Jeonnam Dragons, conceding 17 goals in total and scoring just once.
Grade: C. United City were always expected to struggle but it was their lack of competitiveness -- albeit in a tricky group -- that was damning.
HOANG ANH GIA LAI (VIETNAM)
Even with Kiatisuk Senamuang at the helm, it was not just the presence of the charismatic Thai coach that won Hoang Anh Gia Lai many admirers.
The Vietnamese outfit never really had a chance from the moment they were pitted in Group H alongside Yokohama F. Marinos, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Sydney FC and yet they managed to avoid finishing bottom.
Memorably holding Jeonbuk to a 1-1 draw on Match Day 4, HAGL were never humbled despite coming up against some genuine powerhouses and would finish on a high by defeating Sydney in the final outing.
Grade: B. All in all -- a positive campaign for HAGL in their return to the ACL for the first time since 2005.
CHIANGRAI UNITED (THAILAND)
Considering this season was Chiangrai United's third consecutive appearance in Asia's premier club competition, their inability to mount any real attempt to get out of the group stage was a severe disappointment.
Their case was not helped by the fact that Group J only had three teams, making the qualifying situation even more competitive, but they were as good as eliminated from the moment they lost their first two games.
Chiangrai salvaged some pride with a 0-0 draw against Vissel Kobe on Match Day 4, but even their most ardent of supporters will struggle to claim their displays were underwhelming.
Grade: D. For a team with as much experience, a solitary point from four matches just was not good enough.
BG PATHUM UNITED (THAILAND)
Having reached the Round of 16 last term, BG Pathum went on better in 2022-23 by making the quarterfinals -- and they did so without losing a single game until their eventual elimination.
Although it turned out to be trickier than expected in the end, the Thai League 1 outfit managed to finish top of Group G and then booked a maiden last-eight berth with an emphatic 4-0 triumph over Kitchee.
The humbling 5-0 loss at the hands of Urawa will serve as a reminder that there is still improvement to be made, but BG Pathum should be looking towards being a regular feature at this level in years to come.
Grade: A. BG Pathum got further than any other ASEAN team this season. They deserve full credit for that.
JOHOR DARUL TA'ZIM (MALAYSIA)
While JDT's campaign ultimately ended with a humbling defeat, it should do little to tarnish what has been a series of reputation-enhancing displays from the eight-time Malaysian champions.
Claiming two victories over Ulsan Hyundai -- a side that last won the tournament as recently as in 2020 -- was a massive achievement, but the manner in which they claimed the second one was testament to their belief and resolve as they forced an injury-time winner for a victory they needed to reach the Round of 16.
JDT, hampered by the abrupt departure of former coach Benjamin Mora, ultimately came undone in the knockout round but they will be hungry for more after tasting this stage for the first time.
Grade: A. It's impossible to find fault with what JDT achieved as a whole in the 2022-23 campaign, even if they were eliminated in emphatic fashion.
ASEAN FOOTBALL'S OVERALL GRADE: Pass.