Asian elite seek Seongnam’s crown
The AFC Champions League is set to start afresh without the tournament holders for the first time after last year's winners Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma failed to qualify for the 2011 edition. Yet despite the absence of the defending champions, the continental showpiece - which features four former winners as well as five debutants - is sure to capture the imagination across Asia and beyond.
Matchday 1, which takes place over tomorrow and Wednesday, throws up a host of intriguing match-ups. In the West Asian Zone, Saudi-Iranian affairs take centre stage, with two-time winners Al Ittihad playing host to Persepolis in Group C, while Al Hilal and Sepahan, champions of their respective leagues, clash in Group A.
In East Asia, Korea Republic will be aiming to continue its dominance in the continental arena, especially given that all four of its participants progressed into the last eight of the previous campaign. Topping this year’s quartet are K-League champions FC Seoul, who open against the inaugural winners Al Ain, while Jeonbuk Motors face up Chinese heavyweights Shandong Luneng. Join FIFA.com as we take a closer look at the opening contests.
Jeonbuk Motors-Shandong Luneng
One of the most noteworthy meetings in the Far East is Jeonbuk versus Shandong in Group G, with the hosts looking to open brightly against Chinese visitors who are aiming to progress beyond the group stage for the first time since 2005. Boasting a formidable attacking line spearheaded by Lee Dong-Gook, Jeonbuk stormed into last eight last year only to be edged out by Al Shabab.
Shandong, for their part, come into this opening encounter keen to show the progress they have made under Croatian Branko Ivankovic. Having got off to a successful start domestically by taking Shandong to their fourth league title last year, the former Iran coach is now hoping to make a similar impact on the Asian stage. Ivankovic has some of the country's brightest stars like striker Han Peng and set-piece specialist Deng Zhuoxiang at his disposal, and he can also count on former Cologne playmaker Roda Antar to pull the strings.
The other headliners
Both Al Hilal and Sepahan will be keen on securing an opening victory but it is the Saudis who go into the match as the team in form, buoyed by a recent 2-1 triumph over Al Fath in the domestic arena. However, their Iranian visitors cannot be understated given their consistency over the season, although they come into this match on the back of conceding a late goal to drop league points against fellow participants Esteghlal, who welcome Qatari Al Sadd in Group B.
Al Ittihad cross swords with Persepolis in Group C's top meeting, with both sides in good form. In the section’s other match, United Arab Emirates champions Al Wahda face Uzbek outfit Bunyodkor on the back of a morale-boosting 2-0 victory over Masafi in the quarter-finals of the UAE President’s Cup.
In the East, Group F’s Japanese Nagoya Grampus travel to China to face debutants Hangzhou Greentown. Although it marks only the visitors’ second continental appearance, few question that the J-League champions will start among the tournament favourites, especially after they saw off Kashima Antlers on Saturday to win the Japanese Super Cup. The section's other match pits K-League champions FC Seoul against inaugural winners Al Ain, who only secured their qualification with a play-off victory over Indonesia’s Sriwijaya.
Elsewhere, despite languishing at third from bottom in the ongoing A-League, last season's Australian champions Sydney FC will be hoping to impress in Group H. But the team from Down Under will be wary of their opening opponents Suwon Bluewings, whose formidable line-up has recently been reinforced with the signing of Uzbekistan striker Alexander Geynrikh.
Players to watch
Bunyodkor and Pakhtakor have lost influential figures to the K-League in the build-up to this tournament, with the former's playmaker Server Djeparov completing a high-profile move to FC Seoul, and Geynrikh, a key marksman for the latter, signing for Suwon. With both impressive at January's AFC Asian Cup, much will be expected of the Uzbek duo as they enter the continental arena again, this time with their new clubs.
What they said
"We are K-League champions and the best team in Korea but we have yet to win an AFC Champions League game, so we must strive hard. In our section, Nagoya Grampus will be our biggest threat. They are a very strong side and the match against them will be very important for us." FC Seoul coach Kwan Hwang-Bo
2010 AFC Champions League Matchday 1 fixtures
Tuesday 1 & Wednesday 2 February
Group A: Al Jazira-Al Gharafa, Al Hilal-Sepahan
Group B: Pakhtakor-Al Nassr, Esteghlal-Al Sadd
Group C: Al Wahda-Bunyodkor, Al Ittihad-Persepolis
Group D: Al Rayyan-Al Shabab, Zob Ahan-Emirates
Group E: Jeju United-Tianjin Teda, Gamba Osaka-Melbourne Victory
Group F: Hangzhou Greentown-Nagoya Grampus, Al Ain-FC Seoul
Group G: Jeonbuk Motors-Shandong Luneng, Cerezo Osaka-Arema Indonesia