The Asian Champions league gets underway with Saudi Arabian outfit Al Hilal looking to justify their billing as a member of the continent’s elite.
By Michael Church
Ambitious Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia) have signalled their intent to finally make an impression on the Champions League with the signing of South Korea striker Seol Ki-hyeon on loan from English side Fulham as they look to rid themselves of an “underachievers” tag.
Despite their status as the most successful club in Asian continental competition before the establishment of the Champions League in 2002, Al Hilal have yet to win the tournament in its current format and have only once progressed to the knockout phase.
However, they face a tough challenge in a group that features Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan), who lost their league title to Bunyodkor last year, together with Ivan Hasek’s Al Ahli (UAE) and Saba Battery (Iran).
With veteran midfielder Karim Bagheri enjoying an Indian summer at Persepolis (Iran), and Ali Karimi having returned to the club, the Tehran giants will be among of the favourites to win the title after securing their domestic championship last season.
Portuguese coach Nelo Vingada has taken over following the departure of Afshin Ghotbi and should be capable of steering his side past the challenge of perennial underachievers Al Gharafa (Qatar) and Al Shabab (Saudi Arabia). Al Sharjah (UAE), meanwhile, ensured their place after beating India’s Dempo
in a play-off.
After being expelled from the competition in 2007 for failing to submit their squad list on time, twice Asian champions Esteghlal (Iran) return to the continental stage. They have been drawn alongside another double Champions League-winning club in Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia), and these two will be strong favourites to reach the last 16.
Umm Salal (Qatar), who feature Bahrain striker A’ala Hubail and Qatar’s naturalised Brazilian Fabio Cesar, could spring a surprise while Al Jazira (UAE) – under the control Abel Braga, the Brazilian who coached Internacional to 2006 Club World Cup triumph – should not be dismissed.
Despite missing out on the Champions League crown last season, Bunyodkor (Uzbekistan) have managed to hold on to Brazil World Cup winner Rivaldo as they aim to build on last season’s impressive run.
They go into the tournament having won their league for the first time but will be without coach Zico, who has joined CSKA Moscow. Former finalists Sepahan (Iran), who lost the 2007 Final to Urawa Reds, represent the greatest threat to Bunyodkor in a group that also includes Al Shabab (UAE) and Al Ettifaq (Saudi Arabia).
Dragan Stojkovic will take Nagoya Grampus (Japan) into the Champions League for the first time after an impressive first season in charge of the J.League club. Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea) have plenty of experience at this level, having reached the semi-finals in 2006, while Beijing Guoan (China) are also old hands. Newcastle Jets (Australia), making their debut in the competition, will be looking to emulate the achievements of compatriots Adelaide United, who reached last year’s final.
Gamba Osaka (Japan) may be the holders but Akira Nishino’s side almost missed out on the opportunity to defend their title. After a disappointing league campaign, only victory over Kashiwa Reysol in the Emperor’s Cup Final earned them the right to compete for the continental crown again.
With Sriwijaya (Indonesia) likely to be the whipping boys of the group, Gamba will battle it out with Chinese Super League champions Shandong Luneng (China), who are former quarter-finalists, and FC Seoul (South Korea) for the two places in the knockout phase.
K-League winners and twice Asian champions Suwon Bluewings (South Korea) have bolstered their squad with the signing of China defender Li Weifeng as Cha Bum-Kun aims to take the club back to the top of the continental game.
Suwon’s task of qualifying from the group stage will be tough, however, as they take on J.League champions Kashima Antlers (Japan) – who reached the quarter-finals last season – and Chinese Super League runners-up Shanghai Shenhua (China).
Singapore Armed Forces (Singapore) qualified via a play-off but they will need to improve quickly if they are not to be overawed by the other teams in the group.
This group also features a two-time Asian champion, with Pohang Steelers (South Korea) attempting to reclaim former glories.
Pohang won the old Asian Club Championship in 1997 and 1998, and have featured in the Champions League in its current guise on several occasions without making a major impact on the tournament in recent times.
Central Coast Mariners (Australia) make their debut, as do Tianjin Teda (China), while Kawasaki Frontale (Japan) will be aiming to learn from the experience of reaching the quarter-finals in 2007.
Group stage starts: March 10, 2009
Knockout stage starts: May 27, 2009
Final: November 6, 2009