Asian clubs battle for supremacy

Despite just being a few short months since the 2007 FIFA Club World Cup, Asia's top teams are in the midst of their final preparations for the 2008 AFC Champions League which begins on Wednesday.

A total of 28 teams, including Sepahan, last year's runners-up, have been placed into seven groups. Each group winner qualifies for the quarter-finals, where reigning champions, Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds lie in wait.

Group A has thrown up a little bit of confusion with two Al Ittihads being drawn in the same section. The Al Ittihad from Saudi Arabia won the Champions League in 2004 and 2005 and are now targeting their third success in five years. The oldest club in Saudi Arabia narrowly missed out on winning the 2006 edition. A 2-0 first leg victory over Al Karama of Syria should have been enough to see them through, but found themselves shocked in the second leg with a 4-0 defeat.

The Saudi Arabians failed to qualify for last year's competition, but announced their return in style by winning the Saudi Premier League for the seventh time. Under the guidance of coach Estevam Soares, they are expected to make light work of Uzbekistan's Kuruvchi in Wednesday's opening match, before meeting their namesakes one week later. The games with Sepahan, scheduled for 9 and 23 April, are expected to decide the fate of the group.

The opening fixtures also see a number of traditional heavyweights lock horns with each other. Qatari giants Al Sadd, winners of the Asian Club Championship in 1989, have featured in every edition of the Champions League since the tournament's inception in 2003 and face Saudi powerhouses Al Ahli, who are without their injured Brazilian playmaker Antonio Caio, while Syria's Al Karama plays Al Wahda of the UAE.

Uzbekistan's league and cup double winners Pakhtakor play host to Kuwait's 11-time league champions Al Qadsia. With both striving to translate their domestic dominance onto the continental arena, both teams will be looking to take a maximum return from their opening fixture.

Tough test for Aussies
Australian teams have been dealt tough draws, suggesting another difficult year for them after Adelaide and Sydney 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.

"Our goal is to reach the knockout stage and from our experience last year, it is important that we go away to South Korea and get a result because there are not enough games to catch up," said Adelaide coach Aurelio Vidmar. "If you lose your first one, to play catch up is almost impossible."

Vidmar's hopes of winning the group will not only have to go through the strict scrutiny of Pohang, but also Chinese league champions Changchun Yatai, who open their campaign at home against Binh Duong of Vietnam.

Under coach Gao Hongbo, Changchun took last year's Chinese Super League by storm, overtaking the likes of Shandong Luneng and Beijing Guoan to win the title in only their second year in the top flight.

"We will have a difficult season this year as we are expected to do well in both the domestic league and continental championship," Gao told "But it's an honour to play in the AFC Champions League and representing China, so we will do everything in our power to get good results in the competition."

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 David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy and US champions Houston Dynamo. Gamba get their campaign under way at home to Thailand's Chongburi.

Group F is shaping up as a battle between J-League winners Kashima Antlers and Chinese side 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.

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.

2008 AFC Champions League Group Stage

Group A: Sepahan (Iran), Al Ittihad (Syria), Al Ittihad FC (Saudi Arabia), Kuruvchi FC (Uzbekistan)
Group B: Al Wasl (UAE), Al Quwa Al Jawiya (Iraq), Kuwait SC (Kuwait), Saipa (Iran)
Group C: Al Sadd (Qatar), Al Ahli (Saudi Arabia), Al Karama (Syria), Al Wahda (UAE)
Group D: Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan), Al Qadsia (Kuwait), Arbil (Iraq), Al Gharafa (Qatar)
Group E: Changchun Yatai (China), Binh Duong (Vietnam), Pohang Steelers (Korea Republic), Adelaide United (Australia)
Group F: Krung Thai Bank (Thailand), Kashima Antlers (Japan), Nam Dinh (Vietnam), Beijing Guoan (China)
Group G: Melbourne Victory (Australia), Chunnam Dragons (Korea Republic), Gamba Osaka (Japan), Chonburi (Thailand)