A little over two months since Guangzhou Evergrande and Sanfrecce Hiroshima impressed in December's 2015 FIFA Club World Cup, during which both sides reached the last four, a total of 32 Asian teams enter this season's AFC Champions League aiming to claim the title, and thus the right to represent the continent at the global showpiece at Japan 2016.
Eleven top-ranked Asian countries are represented, with the quota based on their respective performances on the continental stage over the past four years. Of course, the most notable are defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande, who clinched their second title last year under the guidance of Luiz Felipe Scolari. Also attracting attention are five former winners - Al Ittihad, Al Ain, Jeonbuk Motors, Pohang Steelers, Gamba Osaka and Urawa Red Diamonds - while traditional powerhouses like Al Hilal, Pakhtakor and Bunyodkor head into the group phase with renewed ambitions. Join FIFA.com as we preview this season's competition.
Reinforced Chinese contenders
Guangzhou have been the most successful side over recent years following clinching the Asian title twice in just four years. Inspired by the Chinese champions, their fellow C-League participants have spared little in acquiring top-quality star-players as they have targeted domestic and continental success. Jiangsu Suning, previously known as Jiangsu Sainty, are arguably the biggest-spenders after signing a Brazilian trio in former Chelsea star Ramires, Alex Teixeira and Jo, as well as luring Australian international Trent Sainsbury from PEC Zwolle.
Also raising eyebrows through their big-name acquisitions are Shanghai SIPG, who brought in Elkeson from Guangzhou to form a formidable imported line-up alongside Dario Conca and Asamoah Gyan. The reinforcement made an immediate impact as Sven-Goran Eriksson's charges routed Thai giants Muangthong United 3-0 to seal their maiden AFC Champions League appearance. Shandong Luneng added their eye-catching foreign line-up with Brazilian defender Gil and, not to be outdone, Guangzhou inked a high-profile deal with former Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez.
Heavyweights with renewed ambitions
Yet the Chinese hopefuls' credentials will come under serious scrutiny from their group opponents. Pitted against Jiangsu are none other than K League holders Jeonbuk, who have fixed their sights on success on both the home and Asian arena. Under former Korea Republic coach Choi Kanghee, the 2006 Asian champions have left no stone unturned with the high-profile signings of Brazilian forward Ricardo Lopes and towering Australian midfielder Erik Paartalu. FC Seoul, meanwhile, lured back Dejan Damjanovic to enhance their firepower, while Suwon Bluewings will look to their new Brazilian signing Hygor and U-23 star-striker Kwon Changhoon.
With their third-place performances in December's FIFA Club World Cup still fresh in mind, Sanfrecce Hiroshima are expected to lead the J.League quartet as they aim to become the third Japanese side to get their hands on the Asian trophy. Having successfully moulded his unfancied side into one of J.League's top teams, coach Hajime Moriyasu is confident that they can compete against Asia's best. Shouldering the goal-scoring tasks is 21-year-old Takuma Asano who was on target 14 times last season in all competitions, while new acquisition Peter Utaka is expected to continue his prolific form.
Despite narrowly losing out to Guangzhou in the semi-finals last season, Gamba Osaka are hoping for improved play heading into this year's competition. Captained by evergreen Yasuhito Endo and with Takashi Usami spearheading the attacking-line, the 2008 champions are undisputedly among the pre-tournament favourites. The same can be said of Al Hilal, who stormed to the last four only to lose out to Al Ahli. The 13-time Saudi champions will look to in-form marksman Nasser Al-Shamrani and Korean defender Kwak Taehwi as they seek to build on last year's performances.
Despite failing to progress beyond the group phase last year, Uzbek duo Pakhtakor and Bunyodkor enter the tournament with renewed hopes. Likewise, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC are carrying the A-League banner, while Al Ain must put their disappointing Round of 16 exit behind them if they are to recapture the Asian laurels. Having sealed their return with a play-off victory against Al Wehdat, Al Ittihad are desperate to rebuild their lost credibility.
Guangzhou open their title-defence in a champions derby against Pohang at home while in another game, Urawa Red entertain Sydney FC in what is anticipated to be one of the hardest groups. Shanghai SIPG welcome Australian champions Victory and the section's two heavily-experienced sides - Suwon Bluewings and Gamba Osaka - do battle in the opener with the Japanese visitors taking heart from their winning form against K League sides last season.
Old acquaintance meet again as hosts Pakhtakor and Al Hilal square up against each other in Tashkent in what is their fifth Asian meeting, with the Saudi visitors seeking to build on their undefeated record with three wins and a draw. Bunyodkor arrive at Al Nassr with a score to settle, meanwhile, having first drawn and then lost to the hosts as they crashed out of the group stage last year. Elsewhere, having opened their 2010 campaign with a 1-0 away win at Hiroshima, Shandong are hoping to emulate their old feat against the Japanese hosts this time around. The Chinese enter the re-meeting with bolstered confidence after eliminating Adelaide United in the play-off, but the hosts can take heart from their 3-2 victory at Shandong six years ago.
Players to watch
Several stars who excelled during last year's campaign head into this edition hoping to continue their brilliant form. The most notable is Ricardo Goulart, who finished as the tournament’s Most Valued Player and top-scorer as Guangzhou prevailed. Having scored the final and tournament winning-goal against Al Ahli for Guangzhou last year, Elkeson is definitely among the players to watch in his third Asian competition although this time he represents Shanghai. Ghanaian international Gyan has increasing expectations to live up to after finishing the tournament top-marksman with Al Ain in 2014 and of course, both star-imports Martinez and Ramires are both motivated to prove themselves on their Asian debut.
Group stage matchday 1:
February 23 & 24
Group A: Lokomotiv Tashkent-Al Ittihad, Sepahan-Al Nasr
Group B: Lekhwiya-Zob Ahan, Al Nassr-Bunyodkor
Group C: Pakhtakor-Al Hilal, Tractor Sazi-Al Jazira
Group D: Al Ain-El Jaish, Al Ahli-Nasaf Qarshi
Group E: Jeonbuk Motors-FC Tokyo, Becamex Binh Duong-Jiangsu Suning
Group F: Sanfrecce Hiroshima-Shandong Luneng, Buriram United-FC Seoul
Group G: Melbourne Victory-Shanghai SIPG, Suwon Bluewings-Gamba Osaka
Group H: Guangzhou Evergrande-Pohang Steelers, Urawa Red-Sydney FC