Next year's AFC Champions League will be marked by debutants, with eight clubs making their first-ever Asian voyage in five of the eight groups - the number nearly doubling the first-timers featuring in the previous edition. Boosted by their domestic success, not surprisingly, the rookies are optimistic of leaving an indelible mark in their first continental appearance.
Leading the Asian novices list, of course, are Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol, who have shown a watching world their abilities in the ongoing FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011. The Kashiwa-based side, under Brazilian coach Nelsinho Baptista, took this season's J.League by storm in winning their first domestic title upon their return to the top flight. The remarkable achievement sealed their place in next year's continental finals as well as earning a berth at Japan 2011 alongside fellow Asian side – 2011 Champions League winners Al Sadd.
Tough draw for Kashiwa, Guangzhou
Kashiwa showed little stage fright on the global stage, getting off to a 2-0 opening triumph over Auckland City FC, before going on to defeat Monterrey on penalties. “As J.League champions, many people in Japan are expecting big things from us,” Hideaki Kitajima told FIFA.com.
Having had their fiery baptism at the global showpiece, it is likely Kashiwa will enter next March's Group H buoyed by the experience. However, the ambitious J.League holders should be wary of a tough group which also features the champions of Korea Republic, China PR and Thailand.
With the Thai league title undecided yet, K-League champions Jeonbuk Motors represent the section's biggest favourites having twice captured the Asian laurels. Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande, like Kashiwa, have also fixed their sights on making a continental impact after claiming the Super League silverware as a newly-promoted side.
"Our goal is to reach the quarter-finals," said Evergrande President Xu Jiayin. "But we will try to reach the last four-either way, such are not bad results for debutants like us." His comments were echoed by the team's playmaker Zheng Zhi, who said they must believe in themselves regardless of the rivals. "We have set our goal so we are not afraid of any opponents. It is not bad to face strong opposition in the early stage as we can progress campaign-hardened."
Qatari duo look to build
It is similar scenarios in Group B, where Qatar’s Al Arabi and Bani Yas of United Arab Emirates, both of whom are making their first Asian appearance, have been handed a daunting tasks after being drawn alongside Saudi giants Al Ittihad and Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor. Perhaps inspired by compatriots Al Sadd's fairy-tale success this year, Arabi Director Salem Al Adasani said they won't give up without fight. "We respect all the group teams that we were drawn with,” he said. “We will prepare very well for the competition as the AFC Champions League is important for us and hopefully we can have good results."
Bani Yas, meanwhile, can draw inspiration from the vast Asian experience of their coach Gabriel Calderon, who had a three-year spell with Al Ittihad before linking with Al Hilal last season. "The draw has put us in a strong group," said the Argentine, "Ittihad are two-time winners and Pakhtakor are also strong, but I'm confident that our team are capable of showing the good level of football in UAE."
Also upbeat are Qatari champions Lekhwiya, who are expecting to mount a serious challenge against established Iranian champions Sepahan, Saudi Cup holders Al Ahli and UAE debutants Al Nasr from Group C. "Our group is balanced as all the teams have good chances," said team manager Bilal Al Hatmi. "This is our first participation but we will try to show that winning the Qatari league was not a surprise. It was all down to our hard work and good performances."
Elsewhere, buoyed by their title-winning performance in the AFC Cup, Uzbek first-timers Nasaf Qarshi are confident of defying Al Rayyan and Al Jazira in Group A. Meanwhile, in Group F, Australian champions Brisbane Roar will relish the first chance to rub shoulders with Asia's best after sweeping all before them in the A-League. "We're in an important international competition and that's what we want as a club," said coach Ange Postecoglou who took his side to their maiden A-League crown last season. "We've got a team from Japan, China and Korea which are all strong football countries so we can really test ourselves."
2012 AFC Champions League groups:
March 6 - May 16
Group A: Al Rayyan, Al Jazira, Nasaf Qarshi, Winner West 2
Group B: Al Ittihad, Al Arabi, Bani Yas, Pakhtakor
Group C: Sepahan, Al Ahli, Lekhwiya, Al Nasr
Group D: Persepolis, Al Hilal, Al Gharafa, Winner West 1
Group E: Gamba Osaka, Adelaide United, Bunyodkor, Winner East
Group F: Ulsan Hyundai, (Japan) Emperor's Cup winner, Brisbane Roar, Beijing Guoan
Group G: Tianjin Teda, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, Nagoya Grampus, Central Coast Mariners
Group H: Thai League champions, Guangzhou Evergrande, Jeonbuk Motors, Kashiwa Reysol