AFC: Asian Champions League kicks off on Tuesday
The AFC Champions League begins a new campaign on Tuesday with defending champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma conspicuous by their absence. With title holders not being given an automatic berth into the following year’s tournament Seongnam had to finish in the top three places of the 2010 K-League championship or win the Korean Cup in order to seal their place in this year’s Champions League. Sadly for Seongnam they fell just short and now they must watch from the sidelines as 32 teams begin the task of trying to usurp the crown away from the current title holders.
South Koreans clubs have been successful in three of the last five finals and are much fancied to continue their recent dominance with the country being represented by national champions FC Seoul, Jeju United, Jeonbuk Hynudai Motors and Korean Cup winners Suwon Samsung Bluewings. The most likely nation to put up a new champion contender is Japan who haven’t tasted success at this level since 2008 after Gamba Osaka won their maiden title. Osaka make up one of the Japanese quartet along with J-League champions Nagoya Grampus Eight, Emperor’s Cup winners Kashima Antlers and Gamba’s local rivals Cerezo Osaka. The Chinese league doesn’t appear to be capable of making a challenge just yet but its clubs are gaining invaluable experience at Asian football’s top table. Chinese champions Shandong Luneng spearhead the nation’s challenge alongside Tianjin Teda, Shanghai Shenhua and Hangzhou Greentown but any hopes of a first success for Chinese football since Liaoning FC’s 1989-90 triumph still seem distant.
In the west of the continent clubs from Saudi Arabia still remain the best bet to put up a fight for the title with Al-Ittihad, the last Saudi club to lift the trophy in 2005, entering this year along with current Saudi champions Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Shabab. Teams from Iran also feature prominently and the nation is desperate to savour a victory in this tournament having last seen one of its clubs, namely PAS Tehran, lift the trophy in 1992-93. With traditional heavyweights such as Sepahan, Persepolis, Esteghlal FC and Zob Ahan FC involved in the competition Iranian chances cannot be discounted but with each passing year without the title the expectations become greater.
Amongst the remaining nations it will be interesting to see how Australia’s representatives, Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory, will fare after suffering a disappointing 2010-11 Hyundai A-League campaign. The United Arab Emirates are represented by four clubs with national champions Al-Wahda hoping to gain more international recognition follwoing their appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup last December. Uzbekistan is represented once again by Tashkent rivals Bunyodkor FC and Pakhtakor FC, both of whom have reached the semi-finals in recent years. Qatari clubs Al-Gaffa, Al-Rayyan and Al-Sadd, who qualified for this tournament via the play-offs alongside UAE team Al-Ain, will hope for a respectable performance in the group stages whilst sole Indonesian representatives Arema FC will be happy just to be there.
GROUP A: Al-Hilal, Al-Gharafa, Al-Jazira, Sepahan
GROUP B: Al-Nassr, Al-Sadd, Esteghlal, Pakhtakor
GROUP C: Al-Ittihad, Al-Wahda, Bunyodkor, Persepolis
GROUP D: Al-Rayyan, Al-Shabab, Emirates, Zob Ahan FC
GROUP E: Gamba Osaka, Jeju United, Melbourne Victory, Tianjin Teda
GROUP F: Al-Ain, FC Seoul, Hangzhou Greentown, Nagoya Grampus Eight
GROUP G: Arema FC, Cerezo Osaka, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Shandong Luneng
GROUP H: Kashima Antlers, Shanghai Shenhua, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Sydney FC