Fans across Asia will be treated to a wonderful night of club football on Wednesday as 28 sides from 15 countries open their 2007 AFC Champions League campaigns. Those hopefuls, divided into seven groups, will battle it out against each other over six home-and-away games from 7 March to 23 May for a coveted spot in the knockout stage, where defending champions Jeonbuk Motors are waiting with a bye.
With only the top team from each group advancing, the competition will be tough from the outset. That is always the case, but this year it will be even more so thanks to the participation of two Australian giants, Sydney FC and Adelaide United, who cross swords with Chinese duo Shanghai Shenhua and Shandong Luneng in their continental debuts.
Group A: Al Wahda look to Matar
Despite the fact that they only qualified as UAE league runners-up, Al Wahda can call on plenty of experience having played in two previous editions and reached the last eight in 2004. Playing away against seven-time Qatari champions Al Rayyan, their hopes of an opening victory will depend largely on Ismail Matar, who has come of age since winning the MVP award at the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup . The group's other game sees Al Arabi of Kuwait host Iraqi outfit Al Zawra'a.
Group B: Confidence high in Riyadh
Only three teams are left in this group after Iran's Esteghlal were disqualified from the competition for failing to submit their squad list in time. With Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan with a bye, 10-time Saudi league champions Al Hilal go into the opening game against Al Kuwait on the back of a morale-boosting 2-0 victory against Al Hazm in the quarter-finals of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Cup on Friday. The Riyadh giants will be keen to improve on a forgettable campaign in the previous edition that saw them crash out after the group stage.
Group C: Al Karama count on home advantage
Al Karama open their campaign with a home match against Qatar's Al Sadd. The Homs-based side look particularly formidable on their home soil, having made the Khaled Ibn Al Waleed Stadium a fortress in their fairy tale run to last year's final. "The match against Al Sadd is important as we will play against the toughest team in the group," said coach Mohammed Kwid. "Only three points matter."
Group D: Saudi test for Al Ain
Al Ain face a baptism of fire in their first game, which sees them pitted against arguably their most likely challengers: Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia. The UAE outfit's disappointing results in their domestic league also cast a shadow as they are currently languishing in ninth place, 13 points adrift of joint-leaders Al Wasl and Al Wahda. The team's injured set-piece expert, Subait Khater, is also set to miss the group phase.
Yet, despite all these setbacks, coach Walter Zenga is hoping for a turning point at home against the Saudis. "We had a poor run in domestic league but the team only need one game to bounce back," said the former Italy international. "We have an excellent record in this tournament and have no doubts that the team will play well."
Group E: Sydney head for Shanghai
Sydney FC's first Champions League adventure takes them to Shanghai, while Urawa Reds start as firm favourites against Persik Kediri of Indonesia. Shenhua's coach Osvaldo Gimenez saw his team suffer a shock 2-0 defeat against Guoan in their Super League opener and is without key defender Li Weifeng, suspended for the visit of the Aussie newcomers. "We have some difficulties but we have to put the disappointment behind us," said the former Uruguay coach. "We are finding out our problems and trying to sort them." His Sydney counterpart, Branko Culina, spoke confidently of his side being "well prepared" for the game, which he promised will "not be easy" for the newly-merged Shanghai giants .
Group F: Eastern Asians hotly tipped
Despite both playing away, Japanese side Kawasaki Frontale and Korean giants Chunnam Dragons will be expected to beat Indonesian cup holders Arema Malang and Bangkok University of Thailand. Although Kawasaki have no previous Champions League experience, their main concern is the intimidating atmosphere likely to be created in Indonesia. "We have prepared for all possible happenings and it is important for us to keep good mental control no matter what Arema do," said midfielder Kengo Nakamura. In the group's the other game, it will be a meeting of first-timers as Bangkok University lock horns with Korean Cup holders Chunnam Dragons, with the Thai side's coach Somchai Supphoem warning their visitors against complacency. "Our players are good fighters," he said, "and I am confident that our team has a good chance."
Group G: Shandong's Adelaide examination
Champions League finalists in 2004, Korean champions Seongnam Chunma will look for all three points in their opening match against Dong Tam Long An from Vietnam. The more intriguing of Group G's matches takes place in Australia, where Shandong Luneng have arrived for their much-hyped encounter with Adelaide United.
"We are expecting three points but we will respect our rivals," said the Chinese champions' confident coach, Ljubisa Tumbakovic. As for Adelaide United's interim manager, Aurelio Vidmar , he sounded even more upbeat that, despite a long list of injuries, his side's first-ever Champions League match will end in victory. "I'm really confident," he said, "because the players are clear about their roles and that's really important that they know they need to win."
2007 AFC Champions League matchday 1
Al Arabi (KUW) v Al Zawra'a (IRQ)
Al Rayyan (QAT) v Al Wahda (UAE)
Al Hilal (KSA) v Al Kuwait (KUW)
Al Najaf (IRQ) v Neftchi (UZB)
Al Karama (SYR) v Al Sadd (QAT)
Al Ain (UAE) v Al Shabab (KSA)
Sepahan (IRN) v Al Ittihad (SYR)
Shanghai Shenhua (CHN) v Sydney FC (AUS)
Urawa Reds (JPN) v Persik Kediri (IDN)
Arema Malang (IDN) v Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)
Bangkok University (THA) v Chunnam Dragons (KOR)
Seongnam Chunma (KOR) v Dong Tam Long An (VIE)
Adelaide United (AUS) v Shandong Luneng (CHN)