New faces out to challenge old-stagers
Little more than two months since Al Sadd and Kashiwa Reysol's semi-final appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011, Asia's top 32 clubs begin their bid for the continental title and subsequent passage to the global showpiece as the AFC Champions League commences on Tuesday.
The tournament's tenth edition is likely to see debutants make more of an impact this time around, with as many as nine sides making their first-ever Asian appearance. Of course, many eyes are on the five former winners in the shape of Al Ittihad, Gamba Osaka, Jeonbuk Motors, Pohang Steelers and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, while seasoned participants like Pakhtakor, Al Hilal, Sepahan and Al Gharafa enter the competition seeking their first continental success. Join FIFA.com as we preview another enticing season in Asia.
Jeonbuk Motors-Guangzhou Evergrande
With battles between old and new featuring prominently during Matchday 1, the encounter between Korean heavyweights Jeonbuk and emerging Chinese side Guangzhou from Group H is set to capture the continent's attention. Needless to say, the former enter the clash as the undisputed favourites, having conquered Asia in 2006 before narrowly losing out to Al Sadd in last edition's final. Despite losing coach Choi Kang-Hee to the national team, the two-time and reigning Korean champions began their K-League title-defence with a spirited 3-2 home win over Seongnam on the weekend, with in-form striker Lee Dong-Gook twice on target.
Guangzhou, for their part, are desperate to live up to their new tag as serious contenders having won last season's C-League at the first attempt following promotion. Blessed with scheming Argentine playmaker Dario Conca, Brazilian marksman Muriqui and Chinese international Zheng Zhi, the debutants have fixed their sights on a last-eight finish. In the section’s other match, J.League champions Kashiwa Reysol, boosted by Saturday’s 2-1 Japanese Super Cup final win against FC Tokyo, are hoping to translate their domestic form onto the Asian stage against runaway Thai league winners Buriram United.
The other attractions
Perennial participants Esteghlal of Iran will be wary of Group A opponents Al Rayyan, who defeated Al Arabi 3-0 recently to move third in the Qatari league. In the other match, Uzbekistan’s Nasaf are hoping to continue their Asian emergence against United Arab Emirates champions Al Jazira, having won last year's AFC Cup.
In Group B, while Bani Yas welcome Al Arabi in a debutants' derby, there is a heavyweights' clash with two-time winners Al Ittihad playing hosts to Pakhtakor. The past year has seen the Uzbeks in the doldrums with a worst-ever third-place finish on home front, while the Jeddah giants are currently languishing in seventh in the Saudi standings. The Asian competition, understandably, provides both sides with an opportunity to restore some pride.
Boasting Australian international Mark Bresciano and coached by former Italy star Walter Zenga, Group C's Al Nasr should be among the teams to follow with interest. However, the UAE novices open with an uphill task at 2007 runners-up Sepahan, who lost to reigning champions Al Sadd in the quarter-finals last year. The same can be said of Qatari champions and first-timers Lekhwiya, whose impressive domestic form will be under strict scrutiny by Saudi giants Al Ahli.
In Group D, both Al Hilal and Persepolis are determined to open brightly but it is the Saudi hosts that enter the opener in winning domestic form. The Iranian visitors, however, drew 2-2 with Saba Battery. In the other game, Qatar’s Al Gharafa will be optimistic of getting off to a good start against newbies Al Shabab.
Group E, regarded by many as one of the toughest, throws up two of the tournament's titanic clashes with Gamba Osaka entertaining Pohang Steelers in a champions' derby, while Bunyodkor play hosts to 2008 runners-up Adelaide United. While the two hosts sides can enjoy home support, Steelers and United must push aside their latest league form after losing to Ulsan Hyundai (1-0) and Perth Glory (2-0) respectively.
Group F's Brisbane Roar and FC Tokyo are pitted in a rookies' meeting as both sides seek to open their continental debut in winning fashion. The Australian champions drew 1-1 against Melbourne Heart in their last A-League outing while the Japanese must put their recent Super Cup defeat aside. In the other group match, Beijing Guoan travel to Ulsan Hyundai.
Elsewhere, Central Coast Mariners from Group G travel to Tianjin as A-League leaders but the Chinese hosts perhaps boast a mental edge, having progressed to last year’s Round of 16 at the expense of Melbourne Victory. The other game pits Nagoya Grampus against Seongnam, who can look to their Brazilian marksman Everton having twice pulled his side level, despite losing to Jeonbuk in the weekend’s K-League opener.
With recent goals for both club and country, Lee Dong-Gook seems in the mood to continue his form at continental level.
7 - The Asian competition features seven former FIFA Club World Cup participants in Al Ittihad, Jeonbuk Motors, Gamba Osaka, Adelaide United, Pohang Steelers, Seongnam Chunma and Kashiwa Reysol.
What they said
"Despite playing away, we are targeting not merely a point but an opening victory against Jeonbuk. I hope Guangzhou can kick-start the Chinese campaign as they are aiming to exorcise our Korea-phobia" Guangzhou Evergrande coach Lee Sang-Soo
2012 AFC Champions League Matchday 1 fixtures:
Group A: Al Rayyan-Esteghlal, Nasaf-Al Jazira
Group B: Bani Yas-Al Arabi, Al Ittihad-Pakhtakor
Group C: Lekhwiya-Al Ahli, Sepahan-Al Nasr
Group D: Al Shabab-Al Gharafa, Al Hilal-Persepolis
Group E: Bunyodkor-Adelaide United, Gamba Osaka-Pohang Steelers
Group F: Ulsan Hyundai-Beijing Guoan, Brisbane Roar-FC Tokyo
Group G: Tianjin Teda-Central Coast Mariners, Nagoya Grampus-Seongnam-Ilhwa Chunma
Group H: Buriram United-Kashiwa Reysol, Jeonbuk Motors-Guangzhou Evergrande