Familiar foes do battle in Asia
Old rivals are set to resume hostilities as Matchday 2 of the 2011 AFC Champions League throws up a host of enticing match-ups. Topping the list is the showdown between Bunyodkor and two-time winners Al Ittihad, who lock horns for the third time on the continental stage. Elsewhere, Saudi giants Al Hilal will renew acquaintance with Qatari champions Al Gharafa, while in the Far East, Suwon Bluewings are set to lock horns with Shanghai Shenhua.
A shadow has, of course, been cast over Asia by the devastating earthquake in Japan, and Nagoya Grampus and Kashima Antlers have unsurprisingly had their home Champions League ties with Sydney FC and Al Ain postponed as a consequence. However, compatriots Gamba Osaka travel to Tianjin seeking to continue their winning form, while Cerezo Osaka are determined to win away at Chinese champions Shandong Luneng. Join FIFA.com as we take a closer look at the upcoming action.
Having been eliminated at the group phase by Bunyodkor in two of the last three seasons, Group C’s Al Ittihad take to the field at Tashkent's Jar Stadium on Wednesday knowing they have a score to settle with the hosts. In their first meeting three years ago each side won at home but it was the Uzbek champions who progressed as section winners. Last year’s edition pitted them together for the second time and again Bunyodkor advanced at the expense of their Saudi opponents, winning 3-0 at home before drawing 1-1 away to qualify alongside Zob Ahan.
Yet despite entering the match with something of a mental edge, the hosts have been handicapped by the pre-season departures of star players such as Rivaldo and skipper Server Djeparov. To fill the void, the club signed ten new players, and their new-look side opened brightly in domestic competition, with two opening wins under former Uzbek international Mirjalol Qosimov. However, their 1-1 draw against Al Wahda in the continental opener suggested they will have their work cut out against the vastly-experienced Al Ittihad, who enter the rematch on the back of a 3-0 victory over Al Ra’ed in the Saudi League.
The other headliners
Group A pace-setters Sepahan welcome Al Jazira hoping to bolster their lead with a home win, but it is the section’s other match between Qatari champions Al Gharafa and Saudi counterparts Al Hilal that is dominating attention. After suffering three defeats in their early domestic fixtures and having drawn against Al Jazira in the Asian opener, Al Gharafa appointed Bruno Metsu on Sunday to revive their fortunes. However, while the Frenchman’s arrival will doubtless boost the hosts’ confidence, the visitors can draw inspiration from their past record, having prevailed 5-4 on aggregate in last year's quarter-final meetings.
In Group D, it is Zob Ahan’s meeting with Al Shabab that is providing most intrigue, given their respective statuses as last year’s runners-up and semi-finalists. Both enter the meeting on the back of stalemates in their recent domestic fixtures, with the former sharing the spoils in a 2-2 draw with Rah Ahan and the latter held goalless by Al Fath.
Group E favourites Gamba Osaka and fellow J.League participants Cerezo Osaka, who’re competing in Group G, travel to China seeking to cement their positions at the top of their respective sections, Regardless of their results, however, they have shown remarkable spirit merely to be competing in this round of matches after the devastation that has struck their country. Gamba are expected to have a hard time against hosts Tianjin, who are determined to secure their second win under Dutchman Arie Haan, while Cerezo face an equally difficult task against Chinese champions Shandong Luneng.
As for Suwon, their high-profile pre-season signings have paid dividends on home front, with Uzbek striker Alexander Geynrikh breaking the deadlock in their season-opening 2-0 win over FC Seoul before Croatian defender Mato Neretljak struck twice in their latest 2-1 triumph with Gwangju FC. However, the K-League leaders be wary of a Shanghai side who boast the better head-to-head record with a win and a draw in the sides’ most recent meetings.
Player to watch
At the age of 33, Al Ittihad's long-standing captain Mohammed Noor showed that he is still a force to be reckoned with by scoring against Al Ra’ed on Monday. His experience will be vital if the Saudis are to return home with a satisfying result against Bonyodkor.
What they said
“The earthquake came as an unexpected disaster. We are very much concerned about our families and people who are struggling to restore normal life back home. But despite all the odds, I hope our players can focus their attentions on the pitch and get a good result," Gamba Osaka manager Akira Nishino.
2011 AFC Champions League Matchday 2 fixtures
Tuesday 8 & Wednesday 9 March
Group A: Al Gharafa-Al Hilal, Sepahan-Al Jazira
Group B: Al Nassr-Esteghlal, Al Sadd-Pakhtakor
Group C: Bunyodkor-Al Ittihad, Persepolis-Al Wahda
Group D: Emirates-Al Rayyan, Al Shabab-Zob Ahan
Group E: Melbourne Victory-Jeju United, Tianjin Teda-Gamba Osaka
Group F: FC Seoul-Hangzhou Greentown
Group G: Shandong Luneng-Cerezo Osaka, Arema Indonesia-Jeonbuk Motors
Group H: Suwon Bluewings-Shanghai Shenhua
Group F: Nagoya Grampus-Al Ain
Group H: Kashima Antlers-Sydney FC