Reigning Uzbek league champions Bunyodkor will be banking on their near-wholesale squad revamp to turn the tide of the 2011 AFC Champions League in their favour.
Just days after 11 new players - including five national team stars - joined the Tashkent-based club, Bunyodkor face an away clash today against struggling UAE Pro-League side Al Wahda in Group C, to kick-start a campaign that last year saw them eliminated at the round of 16. They will miss the likes of former AFC Player of the Year Server Djeparov and the Brazilian trio of Rivaldo, Denilson and Jao Victor, but if coach Mirdjalal Kasimov is to be believed, the newly-formed team will have no trouble gelling.
Kasimov's players face an Al Wahda side that has just two wins in their last seven Pro-League games and lie seventh in a 12-team table and the former Uzbekistan great said: "We do not have any stars but as a team I am expecting them to do well. We just need to settle down and combine well."
In the other Group C game, two-time winners Al Ittihad host Iranian giants Persepolis at Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium. The Saudis claimed back-to-back wins in 2004 and 2005 and are desperate to taste continental success once again, especially after a terrible performance in last year's edition when they failed to progress beyond the group stage.
Iranians seek to go one better
Last year's runners-up in the continental tournament Zob Ahan are much more open about their ambitions this season - having lost the summit clash to Korean side Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 3-1 - and have already set their sights beyond their Group D opponents Emirates from the UAE.
The Iranian outfit seem well placed to emerge victors against a side currently in the second division of the UAE Pro-League, while coach Mansour Ebrahimzadeh sent out a stern message to the rest of the chasing pack. "Last year we only did half of the job and this year we are going to strive to complete our unfinished task of winning the title," he said.
Qatari League club Al Rayyan have major defensive worries with Abdulrehman Mesbah and Meshal Mubaraq nursing injuries as they prepare to host Al Shabab from Saudi Arabia to complete Group D's fixture list.
In the day's only Group F clash, FC Seoul will be gunning for all three points bolstered by the likes of Uzbekistan national team skipper Djeparov, who converted his loan spell into a permanent signing, and Colombian Mauricio Molina when they meet Al Ain, a UAE club currently on a winless streak of 11.
Meanwhile, with the K-League season kicking off only on the weekend, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors coach Choi Kang-Hee has a full-strength squad at his disposal to face the challenge of Chinese powerhouse and current
Cerezo Osaka, meanwhile, will make their continental bow against Arema Indonesia, and coach Levir Culpi admitted he is just thrilled to be 'living the dream'. "I'm excited as we are starting our season with an important game, an ACL match," he said. "Playing in the ACL was our dream and we made it come true by winning the qualification last year. Now I am feeling the weight of the fact that we are about to open our season with the ACL game."
Australia's Sydney FC take on Suwon Samsung Bluewings in Group H, with both sides bolstered by fresh signings and the latter keen to improve on last year's quarter-final finish.
Newly promoted Shanghai Shenhua coach Xi Zhikang will be hoping to put aside injury worries over striker Dong Xuesheng and fresh signing Wen Huyi, when seven-time J.League champions Kashima Antlers visit.