5 things to look out for
Kuala Lumpur: The 17th edition of the AFC Champions League kicks off on Monday with 16 exciting matches to take place over three days across the Continent.
A host of big names will make their AFC Champions League bows, while no fewer than eight former winners will be on show. Ahead of the first round of fixtures, the-AFC.com picks out five things to look out for.
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1. Asian stars to make debuts
As ever, there will be plenty of new talent on display in the Continental showpiece, with a trio of Asian players among the biggest draws: Keisuke Honda, Reza Ghoochannejhad and Shoya Nakajima will all make their first appearances in the competition.
Much-travelled Honda has played in the Netherlands, Russia, Italy and Mexico – as well as at three FIFA World Cups – since he departed Asia more than a decade ago.
Now with Melbourne Victory, the 32-year-old has begun life in Australia on fine form and gets his first taste of Continental action at home to Korea Republic’s Daegu FC on Tuesday.
Staying in Australia, former Iranian international Ghoochannejhad swapped Cyprus for Sydney earlier in the year after spending most of his career outside Asia.
Impressive scoring records in the Netherlands and Belgium are proof of the 32-year-old’s calibre, and, after scoring his first goal for Sydney FC at the weekend, he will look to continue his upward momentum against 2012 winners Ulsan Hyundai.
Finally, Al Duhail pulled off a major coup in luring Nakajima to Qatar after the Japan international had spent two years in Portugal. Injured for his country’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup campaign, the 24-year-old attacking midfielder is an exciting addition to a side already brimming with talent.
2. JDT finally join the big boys
For the first time in the competition’s history, a Malaysian side will be present in the group stage, with Johor Darul Ta’zim taking their place amongst the continent’s elite. After being eliminated in the qualifying rounds in each of the past four years, Johor were granted automatic entry this time round.
Their opening assignment could barely have been tougher, though, with a visit to defending champions Kashima Antlers on Tuesday. The J.League side won all four of their knockout round matches in front of home support last year, including a 2-0 victory over Persepolis in the first leg of the final.
JDT are highly ambitious, though, and have boosted their squad ahead of the competition, most notably through the signing of prolific Brazilian striker Diogo from Buriram United, who he gained plenty of AFC Champions League experience with and helped fire into the knockout rounds in 2018.
Elsewhere, JDT have long since swept up the best talent in Malaysia, with forward Safawi Rasid and midfielder Akhyar Rashid two players to look out for. Both impressed in helping Malaysia reach the final of the 2018 AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup.
3. Qatari giants set to challenge?
The last time a side from West Asia won the Continental competition was back in 2011 after Al Sadd defeated Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on penalties in the final. It’s been a barren seven years since but, after Qatar’s victorious 2019 AFC Asian Cup, will Doha’s biggest sides be ready to end the East’s dominance?
Of the starting 11 in the AFC Asian Cup final against Japan, seven play for Al Sadd including Akram Afif, who assisted an incredible 10 goals in the tournament. Add in experienced Spaniards Xavi and Gabi, as well as the 2018 AFC Champions League top scorer Baghdad Bounedjah, and there is a side replete with quality.
A further three of Qatar’s starters represent Al Duhail, meanwhile, with the competition’s MVP and record-breaking top scorer Almoez Ali the star name. New signings Medhi Benatia and the aforementioned Shoya Nakajima have added further quality, while the prolific Youssef El Arabi is a constant threat up front.
Al Duhail went on a record-equalling nine-game winning run last year before elimination in the quarter-finals, while Al Sadd went one better and reached the semi-finals. On Tuesday, the former open their campaign against Iranian side Esteghlal and the latter travel to Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli. Both will be confident of bringing more Continental glory to Qatar.
4. Korea Republic’s newcomers
No country boasts more AFC Champions League titles to its name than Korea Republic, with four clubs from the East Asian nation – Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Pohang Steelers, Seongnam FC and Ulsan Hyundai – having all lifted the coveted trophy. FC Seoul, meanwhile, were the 2013 runners-up.
While two-time winners Jeonbuk and 2012 champions Ulsan return, the traditional giants – which also includes two-time Continental champions and 2018 semi-finalists Suwon Samsung Bluewings – have made way for a pair of newcomers in Daegu FC and Gyeongnam FC.
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Daegu were in K League 2 just over two years ago and finished in mid-table in last year’s top flight, yet victory over Ulsan in the 2018 Korean FA Cup final means they join the continent’s elite for the first time and begin with a long trip to Australia to face Melbourne Victory on Tuesday.
Gyeongnam share a similar story, having only been promoted to K League 1 in 2017 after spending three years in the second tier. The Changwon side surprised their more illustrious counterparts last year by finishing second in the league and will begin their first AFC Champions League campaign at home to China’s Shandong Luneng on Tuesday.
5. International arrivals
As ever, the opening round of AFC Champions League fixtures will feature a number of big-name players from outside Asia, with a host of international stars set to make their first appearances in the competition in the coming days.
Saudi powerhouse Al Hilal have added quality to their ranks in ex-Juventus forward Sebastian Giovinco and former Lyon, Swansea City and Galatasaray striker Bafetimbi Gomis, and the Riyadh side will look to improve on their group stage exit last year.
Not a bad start 😊 pic.twitter.com/2ZkUTS3Ulo— Marouane Fellaini (@Fellaini) March 1, 2019
There’s no shortage of stars from the Chinese Super League, too, with Shandong Luneng’s recent acquisition from Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini, a signal of the Jinan club’s intent. Guangzhou Evergrande’s Talisca and Beijing FC’s Cedric Bakambu will also make their Continental debuts after joining in 2018.
Elsewhere, South African striker Ayanda Patosi has been amongst the goals since joining Esteghlal and Ulsan Hyundai’s USA international Mix Diskerud showed his class in the play-off round.
Al Duhail’s former Bayern Munich and Juventus defender Medhi Benatia boasts real pedigree and, finally, Swedish international Ola Toivonen has been finding the back of the net with regularity for Melbourne.
Photos: Getty Images
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