The footballing year began in breathtaking fashion in Asia with a memorable AFC Asian Cup played in Qatar across the month of January. Now club matters are set to take centre-stage with the commencement of the 2011 AFC Champions League next Tuesday.
The tournament, the ninth edition since its inception in 2003, features 32 of Asia's top clubs representing ten countries. Boasting four former winners as well as five debutants, this year’s competition once again features a broad field of strong competitors with few clear favourites.
Join FIFA.com as we preview the coming nine months of competition where continental supremacy, and a berth to the FIFA Club World Cup, awaits the victor.
Favourites aim high
Korea Republic, the only nation to have won the tournament on three occasions, will undoubtedly be among the frontrunners once again. With reigning champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma failing to qualify, the task of defending K-League pride lies with a quartet spearheaded by Jeonbuk Motors making their fifth appearance in the tournament. Although the 2006 winners only booked their spot at the expense of Seongnam with victory in the 2010 K-League championship play-off, their pedigree at the Asian level is unquestioned. Jeonbuk will be aiming to progress to the next phase from a group which also features Chinese champions Shandong Luneng, Cerezo Osaka of Japan and Indonesian champions Arema FC.
Also seeking to draw inspiration from their glorious past are fellow K-League giants Suwon Bluewings, who had twice claimed the tournament’s predecessor, the Asian Club Championship, in 2001 and 2002. Having narrowly lost to eventual winners Seongnam in the quarter-finals last year, coach Yoon Sung-Hyo is determined to improve on that performance. "We have changed and prepared a lot for the new season," he said. "I think we can get a better result than last year if all goes to our plan. I want to show decent attacking football as the trend is attacking football with short passes like Barcelona."
With the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup returning to Japan this year, J-League sides will have added incentive to earn the right to represent Asia on home soil. Leading the way are Gamba Osaka, who emerged victors in 2008 before going on to impress a global audience with a third-placed finish in that year's FIFA competition. Pitted against Jeju United, Melbourne Victory and Tianjin Teda, the Japanese outfit have set their sights on winning, not only the group, but the tournament. "We will try hard as we can in this year's campaign and I think we can win the title again," said Gamba and Japan playmaker Yasuhito Endo.
Saudi powerhouse Al Ittihad may have a strong line-up but they must also shoulder the burden of expectation as the only team to have lifted the trophy on two occasions. Under the guidance of Portuguese tactician Toni and skippered by the exceptionally experienced Mohammed Noor, the Jeddah club are once again targeting capturing the Asian laurels. However progressing to the knockout stage will be a sizeable task in itself grouped as they are alongside United Arab Emirates’ Al Wahda, Tehran giants Persepolis and ambitious Uzbek representatives Bunyodkor.
The only team that have played in each of the past eight editions, Uzbek powerhouse Pakhtakor, are expected to mount a serious challenge for glory. With forward Alexander Geynrikh in top form at the AFC Asian Cup, they will be strongly favoured against group opponents Esteghlal, Al Nasr and Al Sadd. Fellow Tashkent participants Bunyodkor, boasting five players from the national squad that stormed into semi-finals at Qatar 2011, are also a force to be reckoned with although they have lost the talismanic Server Djeparov to K-League champions FC Seoul.
Persepolis and Esteghlal may be among Iran's traditional heavyweights having each prevailed in Asian competition prior to the formation of the AFC Champions League, but it is former finalists Sepahan and Zob Ahan that will carry the nation's hopes based on recent form. The former finished runners-up in 2007 while the latter fell to Seongnam 3-1 in last year's final.
Elsewhere, A-league representatives Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC will be seeking to emulate compatriots Adelaide United who reached the final three years ago. However, after qualifying due to their exploits in last year's A-League season, the two biggest Australian clubs have endured erratic performances in the recently completed campaign.
In the same half of the continent, Chinese champions Shandong Luneng will be looking to overcome recent underachievement – having failed to progress beyond the group stage since 2005 - as they begin with a tough meeting against Jeonbuk. "We will strive to reach the knockout phase firstly and if we achieve that, we will do our utmost to get a great result in each match," Shandong's Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic told FIFA.com.