Four mouth-watering quarter-final first-leg showdowns loom large as the AFC Champions League resumes following a three-month hiatus. In the continent's east, it is all about Korea Republic v China PR as K League sides Jeonbuk Motors and FC Seoul line up against C League rivals Shanghai SIPG and Shandong Luneng. In the west, meanwhile, Al Ain and Al Nasr will aim to defend United Arab Emirates’ pride as they cross swords with Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv and El Jaish from Qatar respectively.
FC Seoul-Shandong Luneng
Much focus will be on FC Seoul and Shandong as the two sides line up against each other for their third meeting in this campaign. Both teams are among the most successful in their respective domestic leagues and thus hopes are high. Having stormed to the final three years ago, the K League hosts have fixed sights on winning their maiden title this time around. The visitors, meanwhile, can make history by reaching the last four. This game holds added meaning for supporters considering that the two countries will meet in the same venue eight days later as the third round of Asia’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying gets underway.
It is FC Seoul that will enter the re-meeting with a clear mental edge, having won away and drawn home previously. Free-scoring Adriano and Dejan Damjanovic spearhead their attacking line-up, while shoring up the defence is Korea Republic international Kwak Taehwi who recently sealed his return to the capital side after a successful three-year spell with Al Hilal. Shandong, for their part, will look to new Italian star recruit Graziano Pelle who arrives fresh from leading the line for the Azzurri at the recent UEFA EURO.
This match also marks the tactical clash between two new coaches. Hwang Sunhong took over FC Seoul in June replacing Choi Yongsoo who left to coach China's Jiangsu Suning. Under the former Korea Republic international striker, FC Seoul won five games on the trot to be sitting in second. In the hotseat at Shandong is none other than former Bayern Munich manager Felix Magath, under whom the four-time Chinese champions have moved beyond the relegation zone with two consecutive wins.
The other attractions
Jeonbuk travels to Shanghai seeking to maintain their brilliant form this season. While the 2006 winners can take heart from their outstanding Asian record, Choi Kanghee's visitors will be wary of the hosts' star-imports. Under Sven-Goran Eriksson, the Chinese hosts raised eyebrows by storming into the last eight as the tournament's lone debutants. To seek further success, Brazilian international Hulk was signed in the middle of the season to enhance an already-formidable attacking line-up consisting of Dario Conca, Elkeson and in-form Chinese international Wu Lei. Jeonbuk have also bolstered their ranks by sealing the return of Brazilian forward Adu, who scored 11 times from just 20 matches in his previous spell.
There is mixed news for El Jaish as the Qataris entertain Al Nasr in their first-ever quarter-final meeting. With Morocco striker Abderrazzaq Hamedallah likely to be missing due to a knee injury, goal-scoring expectations will fall on the shoulders of Brazilian forward Romarinho and Uzbek attacker Sardor Rashidov who scored nine times in 23 appearances over the past season. But the hosts' hopes have been further boosted by the recent signing of former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita. The visitors will look to the creative form of their French duo of Jires Kembo Ekoko and Abdelaziz Barrada, while newly-signed Indonesian striker Wanderley is another notable player to watch.
The stage is set for a duel between two of Asia's most talented playmakers when Al Ain welcome Lokomotiv. Bossing the hosts' attack is, of course, the hugely gifted Omar Abdulrahman, who made his name in last year's AFC Asian Cup by steering UAE into the last four. And the 24-year-old has continued that form, playing a key role for Al Ain in this year's campaign. Providing the driving force for Lokomotiv is none other than two-time AFC Player of the Year Server Djeparov, who has been instrumental as his side progressed all the way to the last eight for the first time. The Uzbek side will arrive at Al Ain on the back of a 4-1 home defeat of Sogdiana Jizzakh, a result which cemented their lead on the local table.
Player to watch
Graziano Pelle may be the shining star on Shandong’s roster considering his exploits for club and country, however, it is Walter Montillo who remains the man around whom the team rotates. The Argentine midfielder will be looking to maintain the kind of creative form which helped Shandong seal their return to the knockout stage after 11 years. His pace, vision and dangerous passes will be key if the visitors are to unlock the rearguard of FC Seoul. Montillo's importance to the team was evident as coach Magath rested him in the latest domestic outing against Tianjin Teda in preparation for the Seoul showdown.
2 - Former winners Al Ain and Jeonbuk Motors aim to complete an Asian brace by clinching the second AFC Champions League title, while Shandong are set for their second appearance in the knockout stage.
What they said
"As hosts, FC Seoul will likely attack more so we should focus on our defence and aim to keep our rivals at bay. A satisfying result is what we seek and we will look to go forward and return with an away goal," Shandong Luneng manager Felix Magath
23 & 24 August
El Jaish-Al Nasr
Shanghai SIPG-Jeonbuk Motors
FC Seoul-Shandong Luneng