A place at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006 is at stake as the AFC Champions League recommences on Wednesday after a four-month break.
Seven teams survived the keenly-contested group competition to progress into the knockout stage, where reigning champions Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia await, having been given a bye.
This seven-strong group features two representatives from Korea Republic (Ulsan Horang-I, Jeonbuk Motors) and Saudi Arabia (Al Ittihad and Al Shabab) as well as the United Arab Emirates' Al Ain, Kuwaiti champions Al Qadisiya, Shanghai Shenhua of the Chinese Super League and the tournament's surprise packages, Syria's Al Karama.
Borgetti arrival boosts Al Ittihad
The Syrians' reward for their giant-killing exploits so far is, arguably, the toughest assignment of all, with a trip to face Al Ittihad at the intimidating Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium in Jeddah.
The defending champions go into the knockout stage as favourites side to reclaim the crown they took in emphatic style last year, scoring 20 times in just six matches en route to lifting the trophy. The Jeddah giants then went on to impress in the FIFA Club World Championship last December, edging out Al Ahly 1-0 in the tournament's opening match.
Boasting national team goalkeeper Mabrouk Zaid and 2005 AFC Player of the year Hamad Al Montashari, they have an impressive side whose offensive line has been further reinforced with the arrival of Mexican international striker Jared Borgetti and Slovenia international midfielder Milenko Acimovic. Under newly appointed Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic, formerly coach of Paris St Germain, the team's goal is nothing less than a victory, preferably a stylish one.
Al Ain confident with Iordanescu return
Inaugural winners and the only team to have gone through to the knockout stage in each of the tournament's three, Al Ain are hopeful of emulating their 2003 success. The team is in confident mood and also, it seems, in excellent form after their Spanish training camp, where they pulled off a 6-1 victory over local side Marbella FC.
The team may have disappointed this season as they conceded the domestic league champions thanks to several below-par performances. However, they have already proved their class on the AFC Champions League stage by emerging ahead of the likes of Al Hilal, Al Mina'a and Mash'al at the top of Group B. The have also welcomed to the helm Anghel Iordanescu, the man who masterminded Al Ittihad's success last season , and the former Romania supremo believes he can become the first coach to guide two different teams to the continental titles.
Jancker aims to break his duck
Chinese Super League giants Shanghai Shenhua enjoyed an easy time of it in the two-team Group G, where they progressed comfortably after a 7-3 triumph on aggregate over Vietnamese Dong Tam Long An.
However, they face an altogether more stern test when they lock horns with Jeonbuk Motors, who surprised everyone by eliminating seven-time Chinese champions Dalian Shide and Japanese Gamba Okasa during the group stage.
There has been talk of Chinese teams developing an 'inferiority complex' against their counter-parts from Korea Republic, but Shanghai coach Wu Jingui was in bullish form ahead of the match. "We are not afraid of them at all," he insisted. "We will prove we are a team to respect."
His confidence stems from the quality of the star team's star players including China captain Li Weifeng, national team striker Gao Lin, midfielder Sun Xiang and, most notably, former Germany and Bayern Munich forward Carsten Jancker.
However, the towering 32-year-old striker has been without a goal for the past four months and is looking to break his duck against Jeonbuk Motors. "I have played only sporadically since last November and it takes time to rediscover form," he told the Chinese press. "I am happy to see I am getting better game after game and I will do my best on the Champions League stage."
Tough 'homecoming' for Coelho
For coach Humberto Coelho, Wednesday's match against Ulsan Horang-I provides a chance to prove his coaching capabilities on his former adopted land. The former Portugal coach took up the Korea Republic reins from Guus Hiddink following the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ but he stepped down after a largely unsuccessful 14-month spell.
Despite his short tenure in charge of the national team, no-one questions Coelho's knowledge of football in Korea Republic, and many believe this will provide Al Shabab with the advantage if he can come up with the right tactical gameplan. Coelho will certainly be wary of Ulsan Horang-I's attacking duo of Lee Chun-Soo and Choi Sung-Kuk, both of whom played under him during his spell in charge of Korea Republic.
AFC Champions League quarter-finals, first legs
Al Ittihad v Al Karama
Al Qadisiya v Al Ain
Shanghai Shenhua v Jeonbuk Motors
Ulsan Horang-i v Al Shabab