The AFC Champions League has long been a stage on which debutants have shone. This was once again the case as its latest edition got underway on Wednesday, with three first-timers producing impressive victories.
Standing out were Melbourne Victory, the 2007 Australian A-League champions, who opened their account with a comfortable 2-0 win over Korean heavyweights Chunnam Dragons. Ernie Merrick's charges quickly found their rhythm in front of their own supporters, and it took them only 28 minutes to break the deadlock courtesy of captain Kevin Muscat's penalty.
The Dragons went in search of an equaliser, but Melbourne maintained their grip on the game and after squandering a couple of chances, they put the game out of their visitors' reach in the 65th minute when Rodrigo Vargas headed home. The result, coupled with Japanese outfit Gamba Osaka's 1-1 draw with Chonburi of Thailand, left Melbourne top of Group G.
Coach Merrich was understandably happy ahead of his team's trip to Chonburi on 19 March. "It all went to script really well," he said. "We could have finished them off early but when you don't do that you've got to be even more mentally tough and keep your discipline, and we did that so well."
Chinese duo achieve victory
Two Chinese debutants joined Melbourne in celebration, Changchun Yatai and Beijing Guoan both overcoming Vietnamese rivals to get their campaigns off on the right footing. Guoan came from behind to win 3-1 at Nam Dinh, although it was not enough to leave them at the group summit. That distinction belongs to reigning J-League champions Kashima Antlers, whose 9-1 away win over Krung Thai Bank identified them as early title forerunners.
For their part, Yatai defeated visiting Binh Duong 2-1. However, international commitments will deprive last year's surprise Chinese Super League kings of three key players for their next contest against Australians Adelaide United, who undid Korean K-League holders Pohang Steelers 2-0 on their curtain-raiser.
Iranian champions Saipa, under the tutelage of the legendary Ali Daei, also impressed in their continental debut by drawing 1-1 with Kuwait SC. The hosts took a first-half lead against the run of play, before Saipa equalised just after the hour mark.
"I'm satisfied with the team's performance but I'm not happy with the result," said Daei, the newly-appointed Iran national team coach who will work on double fronts this year. "Especially because we nearly won the game in our first continental experience."
Underdogs also made waves during the Champions League's opening matchday. Leading the way were the unfancied Syrians Al Ittihad, who won 2-0 at last season's runners-up Sepahan, a side they had fallen victim to over two legs in 2007. Another Al Ittihad, this time the Saudi Arabian heavyweights, joined their namesakes and section rivals on three points thanks to a 1-0 win at home to Kuruvchi of Uzbekistan.
Al Karama completed a Syrian double by outmuscling Al Wahda of the United Arab Emirates 4-1. Unsurprisingly, coach Mohammed Kwid, who guided Al Karama to their fairytale runners-up finish in the 2006 edition, was a satisfied man.
"The win today will give us the impetus we need to build on in this competition," he said. "We were looking for a good result and a good performance and we got that." The success sent Kwid's side to the head of their group on goal difference, ahead of Qatari powerhouses Al Sadd, who edged Al Ahly 2-1.
Elsewhere, Uzbekistani double winners Uzbekistan were punished for their lack of composure in front of goal, losing 1-0 at home to Al Qadsia. The 11-time Kuwaiti champions rest atop of Group D after Arbil and Gharafa played out a 1-1 draw.
AFC Champions League 2008, Matchday 1 results:
Group B: Al Wasl (UAE) 0-1 Al Quwa (Iraq), Kuwait SC (Kuwait) 1-1 Saipa (Iran)
Group C: Al Sadd (Qatar) 2-1 Al Ahly (Saudi Arabia), Al Karama (Syria) 4-1 Al Wahda (UAE)
Group D: Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan) 0-1 Al Qadsia (Kuwait), Arbil (Iraq) 1-1 Al Gharafa (Qatar)
Group E: Changchun Yatai (China) 2-1 Binh Duong (Vietnam), Pohang Steelers (Korea Rpublic) 0-2 Adelaide United (Australia)
Group F: Krung Thai Bank (Thailand) 1-9 Kashima Antlers (Japan), Nam Dinh(Vietnam) 1-3 Beijing Guoan (China)