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2020 AFC Champions League (East): 5 Things To Look Out For

Doha: A 2-2 draw between Sydney FC and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on March 4 was the last game to be played in the 2020 AFC Champions League (East) before the competition was brought to a halt due to COVID-19 but now, after more than eight months, the competition will finally resume in Qatar on Wednesday.

After the West Zone section of the tournament was successfully completed in the Gulf nation just over six weeks ago, the 15 sides from the East Zone will play out the remainder of the group stage and knockout rounds in the centralised venue in what promises to be a thrilling month of action.

There is sure to be plenty of drama to unfold before a finalist – who will take on Iranian side Persepolis FC on December 19 – is decided and, ahead of the opening rounds of fixtures, has selected five things to look out for.

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1. How will Ulsan respond to disappointment?

For much of the 2020 K League 1 season Ulsan Hyundai were out in front but, just like a year earlier, they suffered final-day heartbreak as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors again pipped them to the post. In 2019, a shock 4-0 loss to Pohang Steelers on the last day of the season resulted in a dramatic late turnaround while, this time round, it had been defeat in the penultimate game to Jeonbuk that ultimately saw them fall short.

Given the chance for some sort of revenge in the FA Cup final shortly after the K League's conclusion Ulsan's nightmare against Jeonbuk continued as, a goal up in the second leg, Kim Do-hoon's side conceded twice in the second half to suffer a 3-2 defeat. It was the most disappointing of ends to an otherwise excellent campaign.

The AFC Champions League does, however, offer the opportunity for them to end the season on a high and the 2012 winners have enough quality within their ranks to ensure that if they can return to form in Doha, there is plenty to be optimistic about. Not least the outstanding form of Junior Negrao.

The Brazilian posted a stunning campaign in which he netted 26 goals in 27 games to finish as the K League's top scorer while he also scored in both legs of the FA Cup final. The 33-year-old has already stated that the competition is "the best way to overcome the disappointment" and that starts with a clash against Shanghai Shenhua on Saturday as they look to add to the point they gained against FC Tokyo back in February.

2. Goulart's return

After joining Guangzhou Evergrande in early 2015 Ricardo Goulart took the AFC Champions League by storm, scoring the only goal of the game on his debut – a 1-0 victory over FC Seoul – as he announced his arrival to the Tianhe Stadium faithful in style. A hat-trick away at holders Western Sydney Wanders in his next game added further proof that the Chinese side had acquired real quality.

A brace at home to Seongnam FC to reverse a 2-1 first-leg deficit in the last 16 to advance 3-2 on aggregate was the Brazilian-born attacking midfielder's final scoring contribution on Guangzhou's march to their second title in three years, before he was named the AFC Champions League's Most Valuable Player and picked up the Top Scorer award after netting eight goals.

Goulart was on the scoresheet numerous times in the next three editions, including a memorable second-leg hat-trick in defeat to Shanghai SIPG in the 2017 quarter-finals and a four-goal haul against Jeju United a year later, but he has not been seen in the competition since a brace against Tianjin Quanjian in the 2018 Round of 16.

However, after loans spells back in Brazil and at Hebei CFFC, the 29-year-old has returned to the Guangzhou squad and there is sure to be great intrigue as to whether he remains the force he once was. With the Guangdong side's star man Paulinho ruled out by injury, Goulart's return could prove a welcome addition for the two-time champions ahead of their opener against Suwon Samsung Bluewings on November 22.

3. Australian sides' 'pre-season'

While the domestic leagues in China PR and Korea Republic have only recently drawn to a close and those in both Japan and Thailand are ongoing, the 2019-20 A-League season finished back in August meaning the Australian sides travel to Qatar without competitive action for around three months.

Sydney FC's last competitive game came on August 30 when they defeated Melbourne City in the Grand Final to pick up yet another A-League title and Perth Glory's 2-0 defeat to Sydney four days earlier was the Western Australia side's last meaningful action. Melbourne Victory, who endured a difficult campaign, last played on August 12.

With the sides from the other four countries involved in the East Zone section of the draw likely to be primed for action, the trio of Australian clubs are actually in pre-season mode, with the 2020-21 A-League campaign scheduled to kick off on December 27. Sydney boss Steve Corica, however, has already insisted his players are "extremely fit" going into the resumption.

On the plus side, the Australian teams are likely to be the freshest of those in Qatar having had plenty time to recover from their league campaign; whether that will be a benefit or a drawback remains to be seen. Perth resume against Shanghai Shenhua on Wednesday before Sydney take on Shanghai SIPG a day later and Melbourne get back underway against Beijing FC on November 24.

4. Suwon's second chance

A 1-0 defeat to Vissel Kobe courtesy of Kyogo Furuhashi's last-minute goal at Suwon World Cup Stadium back on February 19 was not the ideal start to two-time Asian champions Suwon Samsung Bluewings' Continental campaign, particularly considering Chinese giants Guangzhou Evergrande were also in the same group.

Things then went from bad to worse for the K League 1 side as they suffered a second successive loss by going down 2-1 away at Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim on Matchday Two. Successive defeats would have given Suwon a mountain to climb to qualify, however they may just have been handed a reprieve.

With JDT having had to withdraw as a result of COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Suwon's defeat in southern Malaysia is now null and void meaning a positive result against Guangzhou at Khalifa International Stadium on Sunday would put them firmly in the mix for Round of 16 qualification.

Furthermore, after a poor campaign in which they finished in the K League's bottom half and were involved in the Relegation Round, they finished the season with four wins and one draw from their final six games to finish well clear of the drop zone. Suwon now go into the AFC Champions League's resumption as one of the form sides and with the boost of an unlikely second chance.

5. Shanghai duo's schedule

Of all the teams in Qatar only Shanghai rivals SIPG and Shenhua will have to play six group stage matches, with the hectic schedule for everyone involved even more loaded for the Chinese Super League duo. They are two of only three sides to have yet to kick off their Continental campaign (JDT's aforementioned withdrawal meaning Guangzhou Evergrande have just four group stage games to play).

Shenhua begin their Group F campaign against Perth Glory as the tournament gets underway on Wednesday, November 18 and play every three days up until closing off the group stage against Ulsan Hyundai on December 3. Similarly, SIPG start Group H against Sydney FC on Thursday, November 19 and finish against Jeonbuk on December 4.

It's undoubtedly a grueling schedule which is emphasised even more when considering that by the time Japanese duo FC Tokyo and Yokohama F. Marinos line up against the Chinese pair for their first matches in Qatar, the Chinese Super League teams will be taking to the field for the third time in under a week.

Whoever is crowned champions of Asia come December 19 at Al Wakrah's Al Janoub Stadium will have done so in the most difficult circumstances. With knockout round matches also coming every three days, should either of the Shanghai sides find themselves in the latter stages of the tournament it would be a remarkable feat.

_Poll ends at 17:00 (UTC+8) on November 20

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