Asia's elite return to battle
© AFP

If size really does matter, the 2009 AFC Champions League, which kicks on 10 March, will go down to history as one of the greatest football spectacles the continent has ever witnessed. For the first time, a total of 32 teams, including reigning champions Gamba Osaka, will battle it out against each other in eight groups, with only the top two finishers advancing to the round of 16.

Inspired by their title-winning exploits last year, Gamba's ambition will be to defend their title and book a return to the FIFA Club World Cup as they open their defence with a home match against Shandong Luneng. At the same time, two-time winners Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, who are attempting to become the first Asian side to win the continental title for a third time, will also be striving to get off to winning way at home to Esteghlal of Iran.

The big match
Gamba Osaka-Shandong Luneng

All eyes will be on Gamba Osaka as the holders play hosts to Chinese champions Shandong Luneng. Akira Nishino's side enter the game in fine form after their 3-0 over JEF United Chiba in the 2009 J-League curtain-raiser on Saturday, and given their impressive run last year, Gamba will begin the match as firm favourites. Yet Shandong are no pushovers. Under Serbian Ljubisa Tumbakovic, the four-time Chinese champions are confident of causing an upset. "We are never afraid of playing against Japanese sides," said Tumbakovic. "The match is all about confidence and resolve." Group F's other match sees FC Seoul cross swords with unfancied Indonesian hosts Sriwijaya.

Other headliners
Beijing Guoan-Newcastle Jets
With memories of Adelaide United's runners-up finish in last year's Champions League still fresh, Newcastle Jets will be confident of making an impact in this, their maiden Asian competition. However, the Australian champion face a tough opener away to Beijing Guoan, who can count on plenty of continental experience. In Group E's other game, two Champions League debutants - Ulsan Hyundai and Nagoya Grampus - will go in search of a maiden victory.

Al Ittihad-Esteghlal
The only team to have won the Asian title on more than one occasion, Al Ittihad have long been regarded among Asia's true powerhouses. However, the air of invincibility that once surrounded the Saudis has been steadily eroding, largely because of their failure to make an impact at continental level over recent years. Adding to their difficulties, the Jeddah-based side face a tough opener against Esteghlal, a formidable Iranian outfit who have twice won the Asian Club Championship. Al Jazira and UMM-Salal, who will face off in the group's another match, are also well capable of upsetting the former champions.

Suwon Bluewings-Kashima Antlers
Despite winning a record six J-League titles, Kashima Antlers have failed to scale such lofty heights in Asia. The Japanese champions will hope to change that this year, but they can expect a serious test in the opener against hosts Suwon Bluewings, the four-time Korean champions equally anxious to shed their own reputation as continental under-achievers. Another of Group G's potential contenders, China's Shanghai Shenhua, will be hoping to make light work of tournament debutants the Armed Forces of Singapore in their opening match.

Elsewhere
Having featured in each of Asia's flagship competitions since its inception in 2003, Uzbek giants Pakhtakor are expecting their immense experiences to count when they travel to Dubai to challenge hosts Al Ahli. There is a home match for Group A's most successful continental performers, Al Hilal, who will look to open brightly against Iran's Saba Battery.

Sepahan, runners-up in the 2007 edition, will be considered clear-cut favorites when they take on hosts Al Arabi of UAE, while the emerging Uzbek side Bonyodkor will expect to give visiting Saudi giants Ettifaq a headache or two in Group D's other game.

Iran's Persepolis, who are attempting to translate their domestic dominance into continental success, face a home match against UAE's Sharjah, while fellow Group B favourites, Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia, travel to face Al Ghrafa of Qatar.

What they said
"Our semi-final performance last year makes us the favorites in the eyes of our opponents, who will try their best to defeat us. There will be no easy games and we have to work even harder than last year to achieve any satisfying results," Bunyodkor midfielder Server Djeparov.

2009 AFC Champions League, Matchday 1 fixtures
10-11 March

Group A: Al Ahli (UAE)-Pakhtakor (UZB); Al Hilal (KSA)-Saba Battery (IRN)
Group B: Al Gharafa (QAT)-Al Shabab (KSA); Persepolis (IRN)-Sharjah (UAE)
Group C: Al Ittihad (KSA)-Esteghlal (IRN); Al Jazira (UAE)-UMM-Salal (QAT)
Group D: Sepahan (IRN)-Al Arabi(UAE); Bunyodkor (UZB)-Ettifaq (KSA)
Group E: Beijing Guoan (CHN)-Newcastle Jets (AUS); Ulsan Hyundai (KOR)-Nagoya Grampus (JPN)
Group F: Sriwijaya (IDN)-FC Seoul (KOR); Gamba Osaka (JPN)-Shandong Luneng(CHN)
Group G: Suwon Bluewings (KOR)-Kashima Antlers (JPN); Shanghai Shenhua (CHN)-Armed Forces FC (SIN)
Group H: Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)-Tianjin Teda (CHN); Central Coast (AUS)-Pohang Steelers (KOR)