The long nine-month journey towards the crowning of Asia’s club kings commences this weekend with the preliminary round of the AFC Champions League. 38 teams from ten nations will compete in what is the milestone tenth edition of Asia’s premier club competition. Amongst the continent’s elite who will line up later this month when the group stage kicks-off are inaugural winners Al Ain, Iran’s Esteghlal, Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, big-spending Guangzhou Evergrande, FC Seoul and J.League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Meanwhile, however, six teams will attempt to qualify for one of the eight groups via the lottery of a one-off preliminary round match. Australia’s Brisbane Roar, Buriram United from Thailand, Iran’s Sabaye Qom, United Arab Emirates duo Al Shabab Al Arabi and Al Nasr, plus Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv will be eyeing progress when the new continental campaign commences on Saturday.
Buriram United – Brisbane Roar
On paper it would seem reigning Australian A-League champions Brisbane Roar would start as warm favourites. However, this contest offers up numerous variables, not least of which is Brisbane’s erratic form this season, following on from two all-conquering domestic campaigns. Australian sides have enjoyed only a modest record in Thailand, with the highly regarded Melbourne Victory crashing to defeat against Chonburi five years ago, while the Socceroos were forced to work overtime before edging a late win in Bangkok during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ campaign. The Roar will be without skipper Matt Smith but on the credit side they are in the middle of their domestic campaign, while Buriram are in pre-season and a lack of match fitness could be telling.
The other attractions
United Arab Emirates glamour outfit Al Nasr are, like Brisbane, backing up from a maiden AFC Champions League appearance last term. Coached by former Italy and Inter Milan goalkeeper Walter Zenga, Nasr will be hopeful of overcoming Uzbekistan's Lokomotiv in Dubai, and winning through to a group featuring Saudi giants Al Ahli, Iran’s Sepahan and Qatar’s Al Gharafa. Last season’s UAE runners-up undoubtedly have enough firepower to win through and boast an impressive forward line comprising of Takayuki Morimoto, Bruno Correa and Giuseppe Mascara. Lokomotiv, meanwhile, are seeking to qualify for the AFC Champions League for the first time after posting their highest ever Uzbek League finish last season on their return to the top flight by claiming third behind Tashkent giants Pakhtakor and Bunyodkor.
Also on Saturday, Sabaye Qom host Al Shabab Al Arabi, with the winner to line up alongside Qatar champions Lekhwiya, Saudi Arabia’s El Ettifaq and Uzbek champions Pakhtakor. The Qom based outfit, who finished fourth in the Iran Pro League last season, have appeared in the group stage previously while known as Saba Battery having relocating from Tehran in 2008. Form, however, is not on Sabaye’s side and they have drawn four of their last five league outings. Opponents Al Shabab Al Arabi, for their part, exited the group stage last year following their debut three years earlier.
Player to watch
German wide midfielder Thomas Broich is the reigning A-League player of the year whose fast feet and precision passing perfectly complement Brisbane Roar’s possession based brand of football.
5 – Prolific Brazilian striker Bruno Correa, now on the books of Al Nasr, scored five goals in seven games for Iran’s Sepahan in last year’s competition.
What they said
“We have got players who have played all over the world and that experience will count for a lot when we come up against a very good Buriram United,” Brisbane Roar coach Mike Mulvey
2013 AFC Champions League, Preliminary Round
Sabaye Qom - Al Shabab Al Arabi
Al Nasr – Lokomotiv
Buriram United – Brisbane Roar