Tough tests await in Asia
© AFP

Asia's top club competition kicks off on Wednesday in what is likely to be the last time in its current format.

The AFC Champions League is set to be revamped in 2009 when it is set to be expanded from 28 to 32 teams with more prize money but stricter criteria for participation in an effort to raise standards.

But this year its current format is retained, with the top team from each of seven groups qualifying for the quarter-finals alongside reigning champions Urawa Reds of Japan.

The competition has already been hit by controversy, with Indonesian sides barred over the late completion of their league and cup competitions. Their slots were handed to Krung Thai Bank of Thailand and Vietnam's Nam Dinh.

Australian teams have been dealt tough draws, suggesting another difficult year for them after Adelaide and Sydney FC both struggled in 2007 when the country got its first taste of Asian club football.

A-League champions Melbourne Victory have home advantage against Korean FA Cup holders Chunnam Dragons in Group G, but Adelaide face a tough assignment away to K-League champions Pohang Steelers in Group E.

Melbourne will also have to contend with Japan's Gamba Osaka, who are flying high after capturing the inaugural Pan Pacific Championship last month, beating the David Beckham-led Los Angeles Galaxy and US champions Houston Dynamo. Gamba get their campaign under way at home to Thailand's Chongburi.

Last season's surprise Chinese Super league runners-up Changchun Yatai round out Group E with a match against Vietnamese minnows Binh Duong.

Group F is shaping up as a battle between J-League winners Kashima Antlers and Chinese champions Beijing Guoan, with Krung Thai Bank and Nam Dinh making up the numbers. Kashima, buoyed by a 4-0 win in the J-league on Saturday, play Krung at home first up while Beijing travel to Vietnam.

Two-time champions Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia remain confident of their chnaces despite being pitted against Sepahan of Iran, last year's runners-up, in Group A. The two sides avoid each other on Wednesday with Al Ittihad playing Uzekistan's Kuruvchi while Sepahan take on Al Ittihad of Syria.

Uzbek giants Pakhtakor have a tricky test against Kuwait's Al Qadsia and Champions League newcomers Arbil of Iraq have a big match against experienced Qatari outfit Al Gharafa.

Meanwhile the legendary Ali Daei will remain in charge of Saipa throughout their campaign despite being appointed the new coach of Iran this month.

The former Bayern Munich striker, who led Saipa to the Iranian title last year, will be at the helm of Iran for the first time in their 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Kuwait on 26 March.

Ironically, the match against Al Kuwait on Wednesday will give him the chance to check on the form of a number of the Gulf side's players, with seven of them national team regulars.

And Al Kuwait are on a roll after defeating fellow Champions League qualifiers Al Qadisiya 1-0 to lift the Crown Prince Cup last week. The other game in their group involves UAE's Al Washl against Al Quwa Al Jawiya of Iraq.

Group C sees Qatar's Al Sadd in a blockbuster showdown against Saudi giants Al Ahli, who are without their injured Brazilian playmaker Antonio Caio, while Syria's Al Karama plays Al Wahda of the UAE.

Group matches wrap up on 21 May.