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The race to be crowned three-time champions

Saturday, July 20, 2019
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Kuala Lumpur: One of the striking things about the 2019 AFC Champions League knockout rounds is the number of former Continental champions still in with a chance of glory.

Ahead of the Round of 16, the quartet of Guangzhou Evergrande, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Kashima Antlers and Urawa Red Diamonds in the East Zone had all won the coveted trophy, while in the West, Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad and Al Sadd had done likewise.

With two-time winners Jeonbuk having now departed, there are five former AFC Champions League winners still in the mix. Three of those sides, meanwhile, will look to create history by becoming the first team to lift the trophy on three occasions – takes a closer look at the trio.

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The Contenders

Guangzhou Evergrande (China PR)
AFC Champions League Winners: 2013, 2015

The speed at which Guaungzhou Evergrande developed into a Continental giant is remarkable, given that they only gained promotion to China’s top flight in 2010. Seven successive Chinese Super League and two AFC Champions League titles followed in a period of incredible sustained success.

After reaching the quarter-finals on their AFC Champions League debut in 2012, Guangzhou went all the way a year later. Faced with FC Seoul in the final, Elkeson scored home and away as Marcello Lippi’s side were crowned China’s first winners after a 3-3 aggregate draw saw them edge it on away goals.

Two years later, with Luiz Felipe Scolari now at the helm, they returned to the final once more and it was Elkeson who again proved the hero, with the Brazilian forward scoring the only goal in the second leg at Tianhe Stadium as Guangzhou were crowned champions after a 1-0 aggregate win.

While Guangzhou’s showings on the Continent have been indifferent in recent years, if they can fix their poor away form this year they could be a strong contender. Paulinho remains key in the centre of the park, while Elkeson has returned after two years at Shanghai SIPG and Talisca will hope to be back from injury ahead of the clash with defending champions Kashima Antlers.

10' - GOAL! Guangzhou Evergrande 2-0!!

Brilliant finish from Anderson Talisca this time as he curls a left-footer into the top corner to double the hosts' lead here against @gomvfc! Two goals in 10 minutes for the Brazilian! #GUAvMEL #ACL2019

— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) April 10, 2019

Urawa Red Diamonds (Japan)
AFC Champions League Winners: 2007, 2017

Rather than sustained success in the AFC Champions League, Urawa Red Diamonds have produced a pair of remarkable runs to lift the title against the odds. But there is little doubt that with Saitama Stadium at its vibrant best and the Japanese side’s pedigree on the Continent, they will again fancy their chances.

Urawa made their tournament debut in 2007, disposed of the defending champions Jeonbuk in the last eight and then Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in the semi-finals. With the first leg of the final against Sepahan ending 1-1, Yuichiro Nagai and Yuki Abe scored in the return fixture at Saitama Stadium as Urawa wrapped up title number one.

A decade later, stunning comebacks against Jeju United and Kawasaki Frontale saw Urawa return to the last four, where they edged past Shanghai SIPG. A 1-1 draw against Al Hilal in Riyadh left the second leg in the balance, but Brazilian Rafael Silva struck late as they were again crowned kings of Asia.

The Saitama team were unable to defend their title last year having failed to qualify for the competition, but they have returned to the last eight this time round. Up next is another date with Shanghai and, with many of the 2017 side remaining, they know they have what it takes to lift the title.

50' GOAALL! Urawa go ahead.

It's Tomoaki Makino who heads in a corner to give Urawa Reds the lead!

Urawa 1-0 Buriram#ACL2019 #URAvBRR

— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) March 6, 2019

Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia)
AFC Champions League Winners: 2004, 2005

Saudi Arabian giants Al Ittihad are the only side to have successfully defended the AFC Champions League, having tasted glory in 2004 and 2005. In truth it’s been a while since they’ve looked like adding to their tally but, into the last 16 for the first time since 2014, the Jeddah team will again have their sights on the title.

Like Urawa, Al Ittihad enjoyed a triumphant debut campaign, producing an incredible second-leg turnaround in the final against Seongnam. Having lost the first leg 3-1 at home the game looked to be up, but Mohammed Noor scored twice in a 5-0 victory as the home supporters were stunned and Al Ittihad rejoiced.

A year later, the final against Al Ain pitted the winners of the first two AFC Champions Leagues against each other. After a 1-1 first-leg draw, Al Ittihad again stormed away with the return meeting with Noor on the scoresheet once more in a 4-2 victory in Jeddah as the title was retained.

The Saudi side had a chance to claim a third win in 2009, but were defeated 2-1 by Pohang Steelers in the final in a game which saw Noor become the first player to score in three finals. Back to the present day and Al Ittihad must overcome Zobahan in the last 16 – should they do so, they may start dreaming of that illusive third title.

48' GOAL! 3-1 to Al Ittihad!

What a start to the half for the team in front as they extend their lead even further. Ziyad Al-Sahafi getting on the scoresheet this time, following a corner. #ACL2019 #ITTvALR

— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) March 4, 2019

Honourable Mentions

Al Sadd (Qatar)
AFC Champions League Winners: 2011; Asian Club Championship: 1988-89

Al Sadd were the last team from West Asia to lift the AFC Champions League title, when they edged past Jeonbuk on penalties in 2011.

Back in the late-eighties, the Doha side also defeated Iraq’s Al Rasheed to win the now defunct Asian Club Championship, meaning, ahead of the last 16 clash with domestic rivals Al Duhail, they are also chasing a third Continental crown.

Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)
AFC Champions League Runners-up: 2014, 2017; Asian Club Championship: 1991, 1999-2000

Twice AFC Champions League runners-up, Al Hilal continue to chase a title they have long since coveted and they remain in the hunt once more this year, with domestic rivals Al Ahli awaiting in the last 16.

The Riyadh team claimed the Asian Club Championship in 1991 and 1999-2000 – beating Esteghlal and Jubilo Iwata – and have also enjoyed Asian Cup Winners’ Cup and Asian Super Cup success.

Pohang Steelers (Korea Republic)
AFC Champions League Winners: 2009; Asian Club Championship: 1996-97, 1997-98

While Korea Republic’s Pohang Steelers have only once won the AFC Champions League title, they have been crowned Continental champions on three occasions.

In addition to seeing off Al Ittihad in 2009, the K League team defeated Cheonan Ilhwa Chunma and Dalian Wanda to claim back-to-back Asian Club Championships in 1996-97 and 1997-98.

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