A three-month AFC Champions League hiatus ends on Wednesday with four mouth-watering quarter-final match-ups on show. A pair of Saudi sides take centre stage, with Al Ahli entertaining FC Seoul in a match reminiscent of last year's final between two teams from the same nations, while Al Shabab travel to Japan to take on in-form Kashiwa Reysol.
Newly-crowned Iranian champions Esteghlal, meanwhile, welcome Buriram United with local expectations high. Elsewhere, Marcello Lippi's ambitious Guangzhou Evergrande will target nothing less than a win against visiting Lekhwiya.
With the other three duals looking tight, Esteghlal and Buriram United represent a different sort of match-up. On paper this is a contest befitting a David and Goliath scenario. Indeed, the Iranian hosts boast a proud record on the continental scene having twice won the Asian Club Championship in 1970 and 1990. The Thai visitors, however, are in the midst of only their second Champions League campaign.
Amir Ghalenoei's side welcome Buriram on the back of their title-winning success in the domestic league. Iran captain Javad Nekounam provides the thrust and drive in midfield, while Arash Borhani shoulders the goal-scoring tasks. Skippering the side is none other than 37-year-old talisman Farhad Majidi, who is targeting his second Champions League title having won the inaugural edition with Al Ain way back in 2003.
Buriram, for their part, raised many eyebrows in their Asian debut last year with wins over Guangzhou Evergrande and Kashiwa Reysol. And they have maintained their giant-killing form this season, eliminating strongly-favoured Brisbane Roar in the qualifying play-off, before progressing alongside FC Seoul at the expense of Jiangsu Sainty and Vegalta Sendai.
Under new boss Scott Cooper, they produced the biggest surprise in this year's campaign by knocking out two-time semi-finalists Bunyodkor in the Round of 16. The Englishman has modified his squad with Philippines international Javier Patino, plus Spanish duo Bruno Herrero and Jesus Berrocal making it into their Champions League line-up. Skippered by Thai international Suchao Nutnum, the Thai FA Cup holders are a side opponents underestimate at their peril.
The other attractions
FC Seoul feature in their third Champions League quarter-final in five years seeking to break new ground. Choi Yongsoo's side travel to Jeddah on the back of their 3-2 defeat of Daejeon Citizen and with both Dejan Damjanovic and Yun Illok in prolific form, the visitors will hope to breach Al Ahli’s rearguard. Vítor Pereira's hosts can, however, look to their runners-up feat last year, and with the Saudi League kicking off this weekend, they will be determined to get off to a good start ahead of the season opener against Al Faysali on Sunday.
A pair of striking sensations are expected to stand out as Kashiwa Reysol entertain Al Shabab in their first-ever Champions League meeting. 23-year-old Masato Kudo, who has scored five times as Kashiwa made it to the quarter-finals for the first time, is in peak form. He has racked up twelve goals in the J.League and was also on target in his international debut against China PR in the recent EAFF East Asian Cup. Shouldering the goal-scoring tasks for the Saudis is new signing Naif Hazazi, who netted eight times last year to steer Al Ittihad to semi-finals.
Elsewhere, emerging Guangzhou Evergrande welcome Lekhwiya confident of winning comfortably at home. Having been narrowly edged out by Al Ittihad at the same stage last year, Marcello Lippi's side are determined to atone for the near-miss. The Italian manager rested his key players in their recent 2-1 comeback victory at Changchun Yatai. With Lucas Barrios departing for Spartak Moscow, on-song Elkeson has been added to their Champions League squad to fill the void left by the Paraguayan striker, while new signing Zheng Long is always a danger with his searing pace. Lekhwiya can, meanwhile, draw inspiration from their sensational defeat of Al Hilal in the Round of 16. Spearheaded by Qatari international striker Sebastian Soria, Eric Gerets' visitors have proved they are capable of causing a major upset.
Player to watch
Prolific 24-year-old Brazilian striker Elkeson has racked up 20 goals in his first season at Guangzhou who have established a remarkable 14-point cushion at the top of the domestic ladder.
4 - Half of the quarter-finalists - Esteghlal, Buriram United, Kashiwa Reysol and Lekhwiya – are featuring in this stage for the first time.
What they said
"The Azadi Stadium is a huge stadium and they (Esteghlal) are well supported so we know that the atmosphere will be highly charged. But if we can impose our game on them, the fans can become frustrated. Sometimes having a lot of fans in a stadium like that can work against you," Buriram United coach Scott Cooper
Quarter-finals first legs
Al Ahli-FC Seoul
Kashiwa Reysol-Al Shabab