Seven Asian winners, including reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande, will aim to open brightly when the 2014 AFC Champions League commences on Tuesday and Wednesday. Other established sides include two-time runners-up Sepahan, Saudi duo Al Hilal and Al Shabab and Bunyodkor, while Japan's Cerezo Osaka and China's Guizhou Renhe are hopeful of making a breakthrough in their second Asian appearance.
Guangzhou Evergrande-Melbourne Victory
Many eyes are on Marcello Lippi's Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande from Group G who entertain Melbourne Victory on Wednesday. The hosts are, of course, keen to open their title-defence in style in a tough pool which also features Jeonbuk Motors and Yokohama F. Marinos. The Italian coach has signed a pair of notable imports in Brazilian Rene Junior and Italian Alessandro Diamanti, with the latter expected to fill the void left by midfield maestro Dario Conca. Top-striker Muriqui and Elkeson remain the attacking duo, while reigning AFC Player of the Year Zheng Zhi leads the home-grown line-up.
Melbourne, third-place finishers in the previous A-League season, secured their fourth Champions League appearance with a tough 2-1 qualifying win against Muangthong United. And Kevin Muscat's visitors arrive at Guangzhou on the back of a 4-3 triumph against Adelaide United on Saturday. Despite their failure to progress beyond the group phase in all three previous campaigns, Muscat has high hopes for the current Victory squad boasting several Australia internationals. However, playmaker Tom Rogic remains in doubt with a sprained ankle suffered on the weekend.
The other attractions
Group A sees a pair of strong contenders meet up as Esteghlal welcome Al Shabab at Tehran's Azadi Stadium. Esteghlal lost Iran captain Javad Nekounam to Kuwait SC but the majority of last year's squad remain. Al Shabab, meanwhile, saw the departure of Nassir Al Shamrani to Al Hilal, while striker Naif Hazazi looks set to miss the tie through injury. The section's other match pits Walter Zenga's Al Jazira against visiting Qatari cup holders Al Rayyan.
Group B's Bunyodkor face up to debutants and new Saudi Champions Al Fateh. Having been eliminated by Thailand's Buriram United last year, Mirjalol Qosimov's side are aware that they underestimate the Saudi debutants at their peril. In the other game, Iranian Foolad take on Qatari hosts El Jaish.
For many, two-time champions Al Ittihad and inaugural winners Al Ain look the favourites to progress from Group C, but the pair will be wary of the challenges posed by Tractor Sazi and Lekhwiya. The former, with legendary Ali Karimi bossing the midfield and Team Melli striker Karim Ansarifard heading the attack, are hopeful of stunning the Saudis at home. The latter, for their part, can rely on Qatari ace-striker Sebastian Soria as they seek to spring a surprise at Al Ain.
Iran big guns Sepahan and 2011 champions Al Sadd cross swords in Group D with both sides aiming to begin with a bang. Al Sadd secured their return to the Asian competition by winning the Qatari league last season, with Spanish star Raul on target nine times. In the other match, seasoned campaigners Al Hilal entertain Al Ahli hoping to get off to a winning start.
Group E’s Shandong Luneng have high hopes of an opening win against Buriram at home, having secured the services of Argentine midfielder Walter Montillo and custodian Wang Dalei from Shanghai Shenhua. However, the home side will be wary of the Thai champions after their surprise quarter-final appearance last year. 2009 winners Pohang Steelers, meanwhile, welcome an ambitious Cerezo Osaka who recently signed Uruguayan international Diego Forlan.
FC Seoul's credentials as last year's finalists will be tested by 2013 Central Coast Mariners in the Group F opener. Former Taeguk Warriors striker Choi Yongsoo remains in charge but his squad look very different with the departures of top-scorer Dejan Damjanovic and captain Ha Daesung, both of whom figured significantly last season. In the other match, Beijing Guoan visit Sanfrecce Hiroshima, having thrashed Thailand’s Chonburi 4-0 in the qualifying play-off.
Elsewhere, Group H first-timers Western Sydney Wanderers face an uphill task against 2012 winners Ulsan Hyundai, while Kawasaki Frontale entertains in-form Guizhou Renhe. The Chinese side raised quite a few eyebrows with two notable victories against Guangzhou. They defeated Lippi's side in FA Cup final to seal their Asian qualification, before inflicting another defeat on the same opponents in the recent Chinese Super Cup.
Player to watch
Diego Forlan is among Asia's most high-profile pre-season signings. While the former Manchester United star needs no introduction, it remains to be seen whether the Uruguayan can quickly fit into his new side with Cerezo aiming high on both the domestic and Asian front.
7 - Six former winners and reigning champions Guangzhou are contending for the title, making the 2014 campaign the edition with the most champions.
What they said
"We arrive here (Hiroshima) with the chief aim of winning as we hope to progress in this year's Champions League. We enter the match well-prepared, both physically and mentally, so I believe we can get a satisfying result," Beijing Guoan coach Gregorio Manzano
2014 AFC Champions League matchday 1
February 25 & 26
Group A: Al Jazira-Al Rayyan, Esteghlal-Al Shabab
Group B: Al Fateh-Bunyodkor, El Jaish-Foolad
Group C: Tractor Sazi-Al Ittihad, Al-Ain-Lekhwiya
Group D: Al Hilal-Al-Ahli, Al Sadd-Sepahan
Group E: Shandong Luneng-Buriram United, Pohang Steelers-Cerezo Osaka
Group F: Sanfrecce Hiroshima-Beijing Guoan, FC Seoul-Central Coast Mariners
Group G: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors-Yokohama F. Marinos, Guangzhou Evergrande-Melbourne Victory
Group H: Western Sydney Wanderers-Ulsan Hyundai, Kawasaki Frontale-Guizhou Renhe