Asian elite aim for glory
© AFP

Asia’s premier club competition kicks off on Tuesday, just two months after Pohang Steelers represented the world’s most populace continent at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009. The South Korean club endured a tumultuous off-season, having lost both their coach Sergio Farias and a host of key players, and their crown will be eyed by a number of well-credentialed candidates from both east and west Asia. Matchday 1 will conclude on Wednesday, with a further batch of eight matches as the 32 participating teams complete the opening fixtures.

As always Japanese clubs will likely prove a major stumbling block for any title aspirant, with J.League clubs having won two of the last three titles. This time around the Japan representatives will be Sanfrecce Hiroshima, J.League champions Kashima Antlers, 2008 Asian champions Gamba Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale. A bonus incentive for Japanese clubs will be the opportunity to win the title on home soil, with Tokyo again scheduled to host the decider in November.

Big-spending Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan, under the guidance of Brazilian FIFA World Cup™-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, have significant aspirations and will most certainly be aiming to improve on last season’s quarter-final elimination. The Uzbeks have boosted their ranks with the addition of a host of talent most notably Pohang’s Brazilian top scorer Denilson.

Two-time champions Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia will also look to go a step better than their loss in the final last November. On the same side of the continent Iran’s clubs will look to bounce back after a disappointing campaign last year with Esteghlal and Sepahan leading the charge. New teams shooting for continental glory are Iranian outfit Mes Kerman, Japan’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Henan Jianye of China and Indonesian champions Persipura Jayapura.

Sleeping giants
Yet to taste glory at this level since the AFC Champions League commenced in 2003 are Australian or Chinese clubs. Liaoning FC claimed the Asian Club Championship in 1990, while Australia’s Adelaide United were runners-up two years ago, however that is all that two of the regions biggest nations have to show for their efforts in continental club competition.

This year, China’s four representatives are C-League champions Beijing Guoan, newcomers Henan Jianye, Shandong Luneng and Changchun Yatai. Jut two teams will represent the A-League being 2008 FIFA Club World Cup participants Adelaide United and Australian champions Melbourne Victory. Despite domestic domination, the Victory underachieved on their first sojourn into Asia two seasons ago with elimination in the group stage, and the same fate befell Beijing last year. These two clubs will face-off in Beijing in an intriguing highlight of Wednesday’s action.

Tuesday’s eight-match schedule will see Pohang commence their title defence in Adelaide. Both clubs feature significantly changed rosters with key signings being former Fulham star Seol Ki-Hyeon for Pohang, while Adelaide have snapped up proven Dutch striker Sergio van Dijk.

Western challenge
On the other side of the continent one of Asia's best financed teams, Bunyodkor, which features the likes of Brazilian star Rivaldo and AFC Player of the Year Server Djeparov, will be further boosted by goal-ace Denilson. After reaching the knockout stage two years in a row, the Tashkent-based side are desperate to make their heavy investment count with an Asian title.

However Scolari's side will find the fiercest of rivals in Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad, who demolished fellow Uzbeks Pakhtakor in last season’s quarter-finals before ultimately losing in the final. The Jeddah-based powerhouse suffered a double blow last season by also conceding the domestic title to Al Hilal.  Their poor showing cost Argentine Gabriel Calderon his coaching position but with his countryman Enzo Hector at the helm and inspired by the talismanic Mohammed Noor, Al Ittihad appear in good shape to take their Champions League campaign further this time around.

Fellow Saudi club Al Hilal appear a club on the rise having won the league in a canter and then claiming the double with recent success in the cup. Their match-up with Qatar's Al Sadd promises to be another opening highlight.

2010 AFC Champions League Matchday 1 fixtures
23-24 February

Group A: Al Jazira (UAE)-Al Gharafa (QAT); Al Ahli (KSA)-Esteghlal (IRN)
Group B:
Bunyodkor (UZB)-Al Ittihad (KSA); Zob Ahan (IRN)-Al Wahda (UAE)
Group C:
Al Ain (UAE)-Pakhtakor (UZB); Al Shabab (KSA)-Sepahan (IRN)
Group D: Al Sadd (QAT)-Al Hilal (KSA); Mes Kerman (Iran)-Al Ahli (UAE)
Group E: Seongnam Ilhwa (KOR)-Kawasaki Frontale (JPN); Beijing Guoan (CHN)-Melbourne Victory (AUS)
Group F: Persipura Jayapura (IDN)-Jeonbuk Motors (KOR); Kashima Antlers (JPN)-Changchun Yatai (CHN)
Group G: Suwon Bluewings (KOR)-Gamba Osaka (JPN); Henan Jianye (CHN)- Singapore Armed Forces (SIN)
Group H: Sanfrecce Hiroshima (JPN)-Shandong Luneng; Adelaide United (AUS)-Pohang Steelers (KOR)