The thirteenth edition of the AFC Champions League kicks-off this week with the opening matchday in the group stage on Tuesday and Wednesday across the globe’s broadest continent. This season has witnessed an expanded competition with a greater diversity of nations represented. Including the preliminary rounds, 143 matches will be played over a lengthy nine-month competition.
For the first time since 2008 a Vietnamese club will feature in the 32-team group stage with V-League champions Becamex Binh Duong granted automatic passage. They are joined in the east side of the draw by Thailand’s Chonburi United and clubs from traditional powers Japan, Korea Republic, China PR and Australia. The west side has a more familiar feel with the big five again represented – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uzbekistan, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Last week perennial AFC Cup challengers Al Qadsia narrowly failed to become the first Kuwaiti side to reach the group stage for seven years with an unlucky extra-time defeat at Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli
The tournament will conclude in November with a two-legged final and the victor to represent Asia at the 2015 FIFA Club World Cup.
The group to watch
Every football tournament must seemingly have a “group of death”, but few could argue the moniker is apt for this year’s Group H. In Western Sydney Wanderers, Kashima Antlers, Guangzhou Evergrande and FC Seoul, the group comprises the reigning champions, the J-League’s most successful club, and both the 2013 winners and runners-up. Despite their status as holders, the Wanderers are desperately out of form having won just once in 16 A-League matches this season. They will hope to catch Kashima cold on the opening matchday with the J-League season commencing after the opening two continental dates. The powerhouse meeting for the round will surely be at the home of Guangzhou, now coached by 2006 FIFA World Cup™-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, where Evergrande will be looking to reprise their win in the 2013 continental final over FC Seoul.
The other attractions
While the headlines may be grabbed by Guangzhou Evergrande and Co, Group G could prove to be the most intriguing. Topping the bill are the J-League’s best supported club, Urawa Red Diamonds, but Korea Republic’s Suwon Bluewings, Chinese capital club Beijing Guoan and Brisbane Roar - the A-League’s brightest hope - will offer stiff competition.
Over on the west side of the continent, much focus will be on Saudi powerhouse Al Hilal who will aim to finally become Champions League holders following their tense loss in last year’s decider. The Riyadh side will fancy their chances in Group C which also features preliminary round qualifiers Al Sadd, and two sides with less experience at this level - Iran’s Foolad and Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent.
Group A will draw much attention with Tehran giant Persepolis winning their way into continental competition for the first time in three years, with the cavernous Azadi stadium their home. Providing the opposition are Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor, who only finished fourth last year following years of domestic domination, plus Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr and Qatar kings Lekhwiya.
Player to watch
Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman will be looking to repeat his recent heroics at the AFC Asian Cup on the continental club stage. The mop-haired No10 with the silken left-foot was one of the poster boys of Australia 2015 and has just recently signed a four-year deal with the UAE club who will seek to go further than last year’s semi-final elimination.
21 – The number of nation’s representatives in this year’s competition with Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar included.
What they said
“To be able to hold the trophy last campaign was a magnificent achievement and something very special. We'll be doing everything we can to defend that title." Western Sydney Wanderers defender Matthew Spiranovic