Former champs out to start with a bang
Just a few short months since last December's FIFA Club World Cup in Japan, Asian aspirants begin their qualifying journey for this year's global showpiece - and continental glory - as the 2013 AFC Champions League group stage kicks-off on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Featuring four former winners and five novices, as well as a series of the tournament's most seasoned campaigners in Pakhtakor, Al Hilal, Sepahan and Al Gharafa, this year's competition looks set to capture increased interest from fans across the continent and beyond.
Chinese hopefuls have been handed hard opening assignments, with Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande entertaining 2007 winners Urawa Red Diamonds, while Beijing Guoan travel to Korea Republic to challenge 2006 champions Jeonbuk Motors.
And there are no easy tasks for the debutants, either, with El Jaish taking on Al Shabab and Vegalta Sendai welcoming last year's surprise packages Buriram United. Join FIFA.com as we preview these enticing match-ups.
Al Ain-Al Hilal
The match-up between the tournament's inaugural winners Al Ain and nine-time participants Al Hilal from Group D is sure to be among the most eye-catching. This week’s match-up will conjure memories of their previous meeting during the 2006 group campaign, as each side claimed a home win, though it was Al Ain that progressed as section winners.
Having missed the last edition, Al Ain sealed their return to the continental showpiece by winning their 10th UAE Pro League title unchallenged. The side, spearheaded by top-scorer Asamoah Gyan and Alex Brosque, are leading the way in the domestic campaign although they suffered a surprise 1-0 loss at home to Dibba recently.
Al Hilal, too, enters the campaign with a 3-2 defeat at Al Shabab, a result which leaves the Riyadh giants trailing leaders Fath by seven points. Arguably the most successful Saudi side in local competitions, the Blues, captained by recently-returned Yasser Al Qahtani, are aiming to shrug off their tag as Champions League under-achievers.
In the other game, hosts Al Rayyan face an uphill task against in-form Esteghlal. Skippered by striking veteran Farhad Majidi and reinforced by Iran captain Javad Nekounam, Amir Ghalenoei's visitors are hoping to win a league and continental double this season.
The other attractions
In Group A, both hosts Tractor Sazi and Al Jazira head into their first encounter with league victories, but it is the UAE visitors that can take heart from their free-scoring form during last year's campaign. The other match pits Saudi champions Al Shabab against first-timers El Jaish, who recently edged Al Arabi 1-0 to move to the fourth in the Qatari league table.
Having twice lost to Al Ittihad at the same stage last year, Group B's Pakhtakor open against another Saudi giant; Al Ettifaq. Al Shabab Al Arabi, meanwhile, can look to their qualifying play-off victory over Saba Qom when they travel to Lekhwiya. However, they will be mindful of the hosts' recent form, which has seen them go seven matches unbeaten.
Last year's runners-up Al Ahli of Group C are expected to win comfortably at home against out-of-sorts Al Gharafa, who lost 2-0 at Al Khor to slip to sixth place in the local table. Iranian champions Sepahan may be strongly favoured against Al Nasr, but the UAE side, managed by Walter Zenga and with Sven-Goran Eriksson as technical adviser, can draw inspiration from their 3-2 qualifying play-off win over Lokomotiv Tashkent.
If their fairy-tale runners-up finish in last season's J.League is anything to go by, it seems that debutants Vegalta Sendai from Group E are set to mount a serious challenge against Buriram United. The same can be said of Jiangsu Sainty, who are keen to topple FC Seoul in their maiden continental campaign.
Having managed four points against then J.League champions Kashiwa Reysol last year, Guangzhou of Group F will be confident of opening brightly with a home victory over Urawa. Jeonbuk Motors, meanwhile, are looking to bounce back after last year's disastrous campaign, when they visit Thai champions Muang Thong United.
In Group G, Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima welcome Bunyodkor on the back of a Super Cup win over Kashiwa, with striking-ace Hisato Sato striking the only goal which sealed the silverware. The other match sees Pohang entertain Beijing Guoan, with the Chinese visitors desperately searching for their first win against K-League rivals.
Elsewhere, with Brisbane Roar's surprise play-off defeat to Buriram, Group H's Central Coast Mariners will be the only team to carry the Australian banner as they welcome Suwon Bluewings. In the other game, debutants Guizhou Renhe entertain Kashiwa Reysol seeking to emulate Guangzhou's feat of last year.
Player to watch
Having topped last year's tournament scoring chart with 12 goals, four more than the second-placed Naif Hazazi, the question is whether Al Jazira's Ricardo Oliveira can emulate or even surpass his old feat this time around.
11 - Heading into their 11th Asian appearance, Pakhtakor are the only side to have featured in every edition of the Champions League since its inception in 2003.
What they said
"No team has won both the J.League and AFC Champions League in the same season, but we will try to reach that goal while it is possible. We must ensure we reach our potential in every game. The team must be coherent and always play to win," Urawa Red Diamonds midfielder Yuki Abe
2013 AFC Champions League matchday 1 fixtures
26 & 27 February
Group A: Tractor Sazi-Al Jazira, Al Shabab-El Jaish
Group B: Pakhtakor-Al Ettifaq, Lekhwiya-Al Shabab Al Arabi
Group C: Sepahan-Al Nasr, Al Ahli-Al Gharafa
Group D: Al Ain-Al Hilal, Al Rayyan-Esteghlal
Group E: Vegalta Sendai-Buriram United, FC Seoul-Jiangsu Sainty
Group F: Guangzhou Evergrande-Urawa Red Diamonds, Muang Thong United-Jeonbuk Motors
Group G: Sanfrecce Hiroshima-Bunyodkor, Pohang Steelers-Beijing Guoan
Group H: Central Coast Mariners-Suwon Bluewings, Guizhou Renhe-Kashiwa Reysol