The AFC Champions League is normally headlined by clubs from a handful of nations, but this year has seen a change to the status quo. Under Englishman Scott Cooper, Thai Premier League giants Buriram United have enjoyed a series of breakthrough results.
Following his appointment as head coach in May, Cooper immediately got his tenure off to a perfect start with back-to-back victories against the likes of Samut Songkhram and Osotspa in the Thai league. However, it was their performances on the Asian scene that raised eyebrows across the continent.
Having assisted former mentor Attaphol Buspakom through this year's AFC Champions League group campaign, the 41-year-old stole the show as his side stunned two-time semi-finalists Bunyodkor 2-1 in the Round of 16 at home.
They went on to complete what should be the biggest upset of this year's campaign by holding the Uzbek giants to a goalless draw in the return in Tashkent, a result which saw Cooper's unfancied side reach the last eight in unexpected fashion.
"I think it was a great achievement, not only for our club but also for Thai football in general," the former Leicester City youth coach told FIFA.com, citing the fact that Buriram became the first Thai side to reach the knockout stage in a decade since BEC Tero Sasana in 2003. "It would be nice to see clubs from this country consistently making it through to the group stages on a regular basis."
"(Against Bunyodkor) we saw how people had written us off before a ball had been kicked. We knew they were a strong team and we respected them, but we didn't fear them and were absolutely confident we could play well and proceed. We were well-prepared and I think we got our strategy right. It proved that we have the ability and flair, as well as the organisation and togetherness, which is what took us through."
In their Asian debut last year Buriram took the group phase by surprise with their fluid play and lightning counter-attacks, opening with victories over Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol and Chinese big-spenders Guangzhou Evergrande. But their lack of experience and consistency cost them dearly and they eventually crashed out in the group stage.
Entering this year's Champions League qualifying play-off as Thai FA Cup winners, they eliminated highly-regarded A-League champions Brisbane Roar on penalties to seal their second continental appearance. In the subsequent group competition, Buriram racked up four draws and a win to progress alongside section winners FC Seoul.
Their victory over Bunyodkor has set up a mouth-watering quarter-final clash against in-form Esteghlal. The Iranian champions and two-time Asian winners won their group in style, before knocking out Al Shabab Al Arabi 4-2 on aggregate in the Round of 16.
"Esteghlal are a strong team with plenty of experience," Cooper said assessing their rivals. "They are an excellent club who enjoy fantastic support. I am sure the two legs will be tense and very tactical as both sides are organised and have great fan support. Our opponents demonstrated their qualities during the group phase and their performances in the Round of 16 were impressive indeed."
Buriram open with an away task at Tehran's legendary Azadi Stadium next Wednesday, before entertaining the Iranians in four weeks, fixtures which Cooper sees as an advantage for them. He said: "Home or away first is always a contentious view between many coaches. But I think most of them would prefer to play at home in the second game. We qualified to the last eight playing away second, so we have to get prepared for either match this time around and work out the tactical plan accordingly."
Should Buriram maintain their amazing run on the Asian stage, they are hopeful of at least leveling compatriots BEC Tero Sasana's runners-up feat in the inaugural AFC Champions League a decade ago. But with Buriram also excelling on the domestic front – they lead defending champions Muang Thong United by a point - Cooper is aiming for success on dual fronts.
"For us the Thai league is the priority," he says. “And we are still in both the FA Cup and League Cup. We want to win them all if we can. As for the Asian matches, we were never expected to get this far so we don't feel the pressure and we have nothing to lose. This could really help us," he summed up.