Knockout stage looms in Asia
© AFP

If home advantage counts for anything, three of the four teams from Saudi Arabia will be optimistic of continuing their impressive run in this year's AFC Champions League when the knockout stage commences in the continent's west next week. Saudi Arabia have dominated the group stages on their side of the continent with a trio of clubs from the kingdom finishing atop of their respective pools.

As a result of the tournament's format, the three Saudi group winners, namely Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Ettifaq have been rewarded with the considerable advantage of playing the do-or-die last 16 matches on home soil. Persepolis are the odd club out and will enjoy a home fixture having edged Saudi outfit Al Shabab at the top of their group by virtue of head-to-head results.

Most eyes will be on heavyweights Al Ittihad, who lock horns with Al Shabab in an all-Saudi affair while Al Hilal face Qatar's Umm-Salal. Ettifaq are handed the daunting task of taming Uzbek giants Pakhtakor, who have featured in every edition of the tournament since the inaugural season of the current format in 2003.

The only non-Saudi clash pits Persepolis against Uzbek's Bunyodkor, who will be looking to go one better than last year's semi-final finish. In a little less than a month the round of sixteen battle resumes in east Asia where three of the four Japanese teams will play the role of host. Defending champions Gamba Osaka entertaining J.League rivals Kawasaki Frontale being the pick of the fixtures.

The big match
Al Ittihad (KSA) - Al Shabab (KSA)
The clash has the look of a domestic derby rather than a continental encounter with both clubs among the all-time powerhouses in the Saudi Premier League. Al Ittihad have won the AFC Champions League title twice, but Al Shabab also boasts success beyond domestic borders with the 2001 AFC Cup Winners' Cup amongst their trophy cabinet.

Al Shabab can count on their lethal weapon Nasser Al-Shamrani while the scoring duties of Al Ittihad fall on the young shoulders of Saudi prodigy Naif Hazazi. At managerial level, Gabriel Calderon is responsible for Al Ittihad wining the Saudi league title this season but the Argentine's hopes for a domestic double were shattered by his compatriot Enzo Trossero, who guided Al Shabab to the King's Cup title with a recent 4-0 thrashing of Ittihad in the final.

Other headliner
Persepolis (IRN) - Bunyodkor (UZB)
The game is marked by the creative clash between two AFC Player of the Year recipients, with 2004 winner Ali Karimi captaining the home side while the holder Server Djeparov looms large in the Bunyodkor midfield alongside Brazilian star Rivaldo. Persepolis have proved to be particularly strong at Tehran's famous Azadi Stadium, winning two and drawing one in front of large crowds to buck the trend and be the only non-Saudi side to win their group in the west. Bunyodkor, though, will draw inspiration from their proud record against Iranian giants Sepahan in the continental competition so far.

Elsewhere
Umm-Salal are expected to salvage Qatari hopes of a place in the last eight when they play hosts Al Hilal. But the Doha-based side have will have to prove that the 7-0 defeat to Al Ittihad in group's closing match was merely a one-off aberration if they are to challenge the 11-time Saudi champions.

Despite making their debut, Ettifaq have proved to be one of the tournament's most attack-minded sides, with striker Prince Tagoe scoring seven goals. However, the fearless first-timers have to keep wary of the visiting Pakhtakor, who can count on significant continental experience.

What they said
"I have worked for the whole season to prepare the team well. We won the Saudi league title and our next goal is the continental competition. Al Shabab is a team to respect but I believe we will be able to reach the quarter-finals," Al Ittihad coach Gabriel Calderon.

2009 AFC Champions League Round of 16 fixtures:
(West Asia)
27 May
Al Hilal (KSA) - Umm-Salal (QAT)*
Persepolis (IRN) - Bunyodkor (UZB)
Al Ittihad (KSA) - Al Shabab (KSA)
Ettifaq (KSA) - Pakhtakor (UZB)
(*26 May)

(East Asia)
24 June
Nagoya Grampus (JPN) - Suwon Bluewings (KOR)
Gamba Osaka (JPN) - Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)
Kashima Antlers (JPN) - FC Seoul (KOR)
Pohang Steelers (KOR) - Newcastle Jets (AUS)