Stage set for Asia's best
A total of 30 Asian clubs, representing the continent's ten top footballing nations, discovered the hurdles they will have to overcome to reach the second round of the 2009 AFC Champions League following the group stage draw in Dubai on Wednesday 7 January.
Joining these teams will be two qualifiers from west and east Asia, who face a February play-off to complete the line-up.
The draw marks the dawn of a new era for the Asian showpiece, with the continent's governing body employing a new format which is aimed at building a ‘bigger, better and richer' tournament. As a result, the number of participating teams has increased from 28 to 32, and the rewards for the finalists becoming even more lucrative, with $1.5 million USD going to the winners and $750,000 to the runners-up.
A test for Osaka
For the first time in the tournament's history, the defending champions have not been given a bye to the knockout stage. Japan's Gamba Osaka, who won last year's title in style, have been thrown into deep end in Group F against Chinese champions Shandong Luneng, K-League runners-up FC Seoul and Sriwijaya of Indonesia.
With only the top two finishers progressing to the Round of 16, the competition is expected to be ferocious, as predicted by Gamba's skipper Satoshi Yamaguchi, who steered his side to continental glory last year.
"We will do whatever we can to defend the title," he said. "All of us are determined to show our best. But the group matches won't be easy as teams from China and Korea Republic have showed their strength and quality over the past few years."
Gamba open the defence of their title on 11 March against Shandong, the three-time Chinese champions who are ready to mount a serious challenge themselves.
"We are not daunted by meeting Gamba, although they are the seeds," said Han Gongzheng, the general manager of the ambitious Chinese club. "FC Seoul are also tough competitors and even Sriwijaya cannot be underestimated."
Too close to call
The draw threw up some intriguing match-ups, with two-time winners Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia placed in one of the hardest groups. The Saudi giants, the only team to win the Asian laurels on more than one occasion, have been pitted against Iran's traditional powerhouses Esteghlal, UAE champions Al Jazira and Qatari side Umm Salal.
After Adelaide United made a name for both themselves and Australian football last year by reaching the final, Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners have a lot to live up to. However, the two representatives from Down Under have been handed difficult tasks against teams from China, Japan and Korea Republic.
Last year's surprise semi-finalists, Bunyodkor, have to battle it out against three established teams from west Asia for one of the two qualifying spots. Despite the tough assignment, the Uzbek hopefuls, coached by Brazilian legend Zico and who include Rivaldo in their ranks, are expected to have a similar impact in only their second continental appearance.
2009 AFC Champions League draw
Group A: Al Hilal (KSA), Bunyodkor (UZB), Al Ahli (UAE), Saba Battery (IRN)
Group B: Persepolis (IRN), Al Shabab (KSA), Al Gharafa(QAT), P1
Group C: Al Jazira (UAE), Esteghlal (IRN), Al Ittihad (KSA), Umm Salal (QAT)
Group D: Pakhtakor (UZB), Al Shabab (UAE), Sepahan (IRN), Al Ettifaq (KSA)
Group E: Ulsan Hyundai (KOR), Newcastle Jets (AUS), Beijing Guoan (CHN), Nagoya Grampus (JPN)
Group F: Gamba Osaka (JPN), FC Seoul (KOR), Shandong Luneng (CHN), Sriwijaya (IDN)
Group G: Shanghai Shenhua (CHN), P2, Kashima Antlers (JPN), Suwon Bluewings (KOR)
Group H: Central Coast Mariners (AUS), Tianjin Teda (CHN), Kawasaki Frontale (JPN), Pohang Steelers (KOR)
25 February 2009
P1=Al Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) v Dempo (India)
18 February 2009
Provincial Electricity Authority FC (Thailand) v Singapore Armed Forces FC (Singapore)
25 February 2009
P2=Winner of Feb 18, 2009 match v PSMS Medan (Indonesia).