Just 26 days after the 2005 AFC Champions League ended, Asia has already set the wheels in motion for next year's edition of the tournament. On Thursday afternoon, 10 days before reigning champions Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia open their campaign against Al Ahly at the inaugural FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005, 28 teams from 14 nations across the world's largest continent have drawn into seven groups to compete for places in the knockout phase of 2006 AFC Champions League.
With Al Ain and Al Ittihad monopolizing the previous three titles since the competition's inception in 2003, teams from west Asia are expected to re-enforce their dominance at club level as a total of 14 representatives from this region, including Uzbekistan giants Pakhtakor and Mashal, battle it out in four different groups.
Teams from south east Asia, who have been drawn against eastern Asian teams in three different groups, will be hoping to emulate the memorable campaign in 2003, when BEC Tero Sasana from Thailand reached the semi-finals. However, given their past records, their chances against strong opponents from Korea Republic, Japan and China look slim.
Al Ain resume Saudi opposition
For Al Ain from the United Arab Emirates, their defeat against Al Ittihad in the final of the 2005 AFC Champions League is still fresh in the mind. But, as fate would have it, they have been drawn against another Saudi Arabian giant in Al Hilal in a group that also consists of Mashal from Uzbekistan and Al Minaa from Iraq.
Al Ain and Al Hilal played each other in the 2003 AFC Champions League, with the team from the UAE emerging victorious, thanks to Gharib Harib's 12th minute penalty. However, this game was played before the format of the tournament was revamped with each match being staged over two legs. On that occasion, Al Ain took full advantage of playing the tie on home soil, as their stadium hosted all of the group's matches.
Al Hilal, who won the league and cup double in 2005, will be looking to their veteran striker Sami Al Jaber to inspire them to glory. However, if they fail in their quest, the Saudi supporters can still get behind Al Shabab, who have been placed in Group D with Al Sadd (QAT), Al Arabi (KUW) and Al Quwa Al Jawiya (IRQ), with defending champions Al Ittihad waiting in the knockout stage with a bye.
Do not underestimate the debutants
Seeing as the tournament is only in its third year, it is no surprise that new teams are emerging who can upset the established names in Asian football.
In last year's competition, two first-timers, China's Shenzhen Jianlibao and Korea Republic cup holders Busan I'Park, reached semi-finals defying the predictions of many fans and pundits, before they fell to the eventual finalists Al Ain and Al Ittihad.
Next year's competition sees twelve newcomers, who have never previously competed in the AFC Champions League. In the west, Foolad and Saba Battery from Iran will be playing in Group A and C respectively, while Iraq's Al Minaa meet Uzbekistan's Mashal in Group B.
In east Asia, Tokyo Verdy may cause a few upsets in Group F that also features first-timers Arema Malang (IDN) and Tobacco Monopoly (THA).
The 2006 AFC Champions League draw in full:
Al Qadisiya (KUW)
Al Ittihad (SYR)
Al Ain (UAE)
Al Minaa (IRQ)
Al Hilal (KSA)
Al Wahda (UAE)
Al Gharafa (QAT)
Al Karama (SYR)
Saba Battery (IRN)
Al Sadd (QAT)
Al Arabi (KUW)
Al Quwa Al Jawiya (IRQ)
Al Shabab (KSA)
KFA Cup Winners (KOR)
Dalian Shide (CHN)
J.League 2005 Champions (JPN)
Da Nang (VIE)
K-League 2005 Champions (KOR)
Arema Malang (IDN)
Tobacco Monopoly (THA)
Tokyo Verdy (JPN)
Persipura Jayapura (IDN)
Shanghai Shenhua (CHN)
Prov. Electrical Authority (THA)
Dong Tam Long An (VIE)