A revamped and far more lucrative AFC Champions League commences tomorrow with Japan's Gamba Osaka determined to defend their title.
Asia's top club competition has been expanded from 28 to 32 teams with new rules restricting each team to a maximum of four foreign players. Stricter participation criteria have also been imposed in an effort to raise the level of play.
To make the grade, leagues have had to satisfy the Asian Football Confederation that they meet certain standards regarding team affairs, attendances, marketing, stadiums, and media arrangements. It has boiled down to 10 countries being deemed good enough, with Japan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, China and South Korea all having four teams in contention.
At stake is $20 million in prizemoney, dwarfing the $4 million available for the 2008 event as the AFC looks to push the competition to another level. Gamba lead the J-League charge and open their campaign tomorrow against China's Shandong Luneng. FC Seoul and Indonesia's Sriwijaya are also in their group.
"The status of the AFC Champions League has been graded up this year and I expect Korean and Chinese clubs to fight like mad," said Gamba coach Akira Nishino. "It will be a tougher competition. Our goal is to show our real ability in both the Champions League and the J-League."
Kashima Antlers, Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya Grampus make up the rest of the Japanese contingent, with the J-League widely seen as Asia's model league that others should learn from in the quest to raise Asian football standards. Last year's runners-up Adelaide United missed out on qualifying this year with the Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners flying the Australian A-League flag.
Newcastle kick-off away to Beijing Guoan while the Mariners make their AFC Champions League debut against South Korea's Pohang Steelers at home on Wednesday. The Mariners are on a miserable streak and coach Lawrie McKinna hopes their Asian adventure will help turn things around.
"We're over the doom and gloom of the last few games and, looking ahead to the AFC Champions League, it's an exciting time for the club," he said. Singapore have a team in the competition for the first time after Singapore Armed Forces came through preliminary qualifying.
Their reward is being grouped with Kashima Antlers, South Korea's Suwon Bluewings and Shanghai Shenhua, with the Chinese Super League team their first opponents on Wednesday. "It is definitely going to be tough because we will be up against the J-League and K-League champions and Shanghai Shenhua so the boys will have to step up and raise their game," said Armed Forces coach Richard Bok. "But we will try to play football the way the team is used to playing and we will not be looking to play a defensive game in the group stage."
In the West Asian side of the draw, Saudi giants Al Ittihad are at home to Iran's Esteghlal while UAE outfit Al Ahli take on Uzbek heavyweights Pakhtakor. Elsewhere, Qatar's Al Gharafa play Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor play another Saudi side, Ettifaq. The group stages wrap up on 20 May with the knockout rounds starting later that month ahead of the final in Japan in November.