The 14 teams that last week won their opening encounters in Matchday 1 of the 2009 AFC Champions League will be looking to steal an early march on their counterparts when the second round of action commences tomorrow. Opening round winners will have the opportunity to stake an early claim for the title, and at the same time take a stranglehold on the group standings, in the second of two matches within a week for the newly expanded 32-team competition.
Japanese clubs proved the biggest winners on the opening day with three of the four participants emerging victors. The winning trio, though, will face up to tough East Asian opposition in their second game, with title holders Gamba Osaka crossing swords with FC Seoul, Kawasaki Frontale tackling Pohang Steelers, while Nagoya Grampus entertains Beijing Guoan.
Uzbek's Bunyodkor and Pakhtakor also impressed in their first outings, both overcoming West Asian opponents to take the drivers seat. However major challenges await this week, with the former taking on Al Arabi of UAE and the latter playing host to Saudi giants Al Hilal.
Contrasting to Adelaide United's runners-up performance last year, Australia's Newcastle Jets and Central Coast had hugely disappointing starts. Their task won't get any easier this week as both look to put their campaigns back on track against Ulsan Hyundai and Tianjin Teda respectively.
The big match
FC Seoul (KOR)-Gamba Osaka (JPN)
Two overwhelming opening wins in the J-league sandwiched by a 3-0 thrashing of China's Shandong Luneng underlined Gamba Osaka's place at the top of both the Japanese and Asian pecking order. While defending Asian champions Gamba enter the new season determined to win all silverware on offer, there are concerns that they may become victims of their own success. The defending champions are faced with four games in the space of ten days and the demanding schedule may prove their undoing at some point. Despite losing their K-league opener 2-1 to Gangwon FC on Saturday, hosts Seoul FC will be hopeful of exploiting their home advantage and possible Japanese weariness. The group's other match pits hosts Shandong against Indonesian Sriwijaya, two losing sides who risk losing touch with the group leaders if they fail to take all three points.
UMM-Salal (QAT)-Al Ittihad (KSA)
An unconvincing opening 2-1 win over Iran's Esteghlal highlighted that two-time winners Al Ittihad are far from their usual dominant selves. Their Argentine coach Gabriel Calderon stating he expects his side to perform better despite profligacy in front of goal against Esteghlal. Iran's Esteghlal entertain Al Jazira in the other match.
Nagoya Grampus (JPN)-Beijing Guoan (CHN)
Both sides are underachievers at domestic level, with neither having yet claimed their respective league crowns. However, the Asian competition provides an opportunity to showcase their abilities on the continental stage. Hosts Nagoya will draw inspiration from their silver-medal performance in the 1998 Asian Cup Winners' Cup while Beijing can point to reaching the last four in the same tournament a year later. Newcastle Jets meet Ulsan Hyundai in the other match, with both in desperate search for a first win.
Al Arabi (UAE)-Bunyodkor (UZB)
Inspired by their semi-finals performance last year, Bunyodkor are hoping to make more of an impact this time and they undoubtedly have the potential to go a step better. The midfield is controlled by Brazilian star Rivaldo and Server Djeprov, the reigning AFC Player of the Year, and the combination has proved superbly creative with both having a hand in their sides' goals in the opening 2-1 triumph over Ettifaq. Not surprisingly, hosts Al Arabi will have a mountain to climb against the Uzbek champions. After losing the opener last week, Ettifaq are charged with an even more daunting task against Iran's Sepahan in other game.
One of the crunch ties is Group B's two winning sides Al Shabab and Persepolis, true heavyweights who are looking in earnest to strengthen their place with a second win. In Group A, Pakhtakor host Al Hilal in Tashkent, knowing that a home win will cement pole position.
Suwon Bluewings are expected to make light work of hosts Armed Forces of Singapore, while Kashima Antlers face Shanghai Shenhua in Group G's other match. Tianjin Teda will be hoping to repeat the home success of Beijing last week against Australian opposition when they meet Central Coast, while in the other match Pohang Steelers will also be looking to take advantage of the home environs to open their winning account against Kawasaki Frontale.
What they said
"We played not badly against Kashima Antlers last year and this time we travel to Japan to challenge Nagoya Grampus with the sole aim of gaining three points." Beijing Guoan's Korean coach Lee Jang-Soo.
2009 AFC Champions League Matchday 2 fixtures:
Group A: Pakhtakor (UZB)-Al Hilal (KSA); Saba Battery (IRN)-Al Ahli (UAE)
Group B: Al Shabab (KSA)-Persepolis (IRN); Sharjah (UAE)-Al Gharafa (QAT)
Group C: Esteghlal (IRN)-Al Jazira (UAE); UMM-Salal (QAT)-Al Ittihad (KSA)
Group D: Al Arabi (UAE) -Bunyodkor (UZB); Ettifaq (KSA) - Sepahan (IRN)
Group E: Newcastle Jets (AUS)-Ulsan Hyundai (KOR); Nagoya Grampus (JPN)-Beijing Guoan (CHN)
Group F: FC Seoul (KOR)-Gamba Osaka (JPN); Shandong Luneng (CHN)-Sriwijaya (IDN)
Group G: Kashima Antlers (JPN)-Shanghai Shenhua (CHN); Armed Forces (SIN)-Suwon Bluewings (KOR)
Group H: Tianjin Teda (CHN)-Central Coast (AUS); Pohang Steelers (KOR)-Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)