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AFC Champions League: Through the Years (2015-17)

Kuala Lumpur: As fans of Asian football prepare for the return of the AFC Champions League, with the group stage of the 19th edition of the continental competition kicking off on Wednesday, looks back at the tournament's history. 

A record 40 teams split into 10 groups will take part in the 2021 AFC Champions League as the competition continues to go from strength to strength, showcasing Asia's finest teams and numerous world-renowned players.

The period between 2011 and 2014 saw champions from three new countries; Qatar, China PR and Australia, but the next three editions would see a bounce back of established powers with three different clubs lifting their second AFC Champions League trophy between 2015 and 2017.

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2015 AFC Champions League: Guangzhou make it two

A few months after Western Sydney Wanderers’ iconic victory in the 2014 edition, it was time to go again and the name of the 2015 champions could have been anyone’s guess especially as eight of the previous 11 winners were present in the group stage. Only Al Ittihad, Pohang Steelers and Ulsan Hyundai missed out.

A closely contested Group H saw the reigning champions narrowly miss out on qualification as Wanderers finished third, one point behind second placed FC Seoul and two behind leaders and would-be champions Guangzhou Evergrande.

The Round of 16 produced some meaty affairs as former champions Seongnam FC and Guangzhou Evergrande locked horns and there were two local derbies; Al Sadd facing Lekhwiya and Al Ain playing Al Ahli. There was also a clash of powers between Al Hilal and Persepolis.

Lekhwiya reigned supreme over the 2011 champions and set up a date with Al Hilal who overcame Persepolis. Meanwhile, UAE’s Al Ahli progressed to the quarter-finals to face Neft Tehran. In the East, only one of the four Korean teams in the Round of 16 survived; Jeonbuk Hyundai knocked out Beijing FC. Suwon Samsung Bluewings were eliminated by Kashiwa Reysol, while Guangzhou Evergrande’s road to the final continued at the expense of Seongnam FC and FC Seoul’s journey was ended by Gamba Osaka.

After the two sides shared the spoils in Riyadh, Dubai’s Rashid Stadium was home to an all-time AFC Champions League classic between Al Hilal and Al Ahli UAE in the semi-final second leg. The hosts surged to a 2-0 lead before the break through Rodrigo Lima and Everton Ribeiro, but Al Hilal clawed back the difference as their own Brazilian pair – Ailton Almeida and Carlos Eduardo – struck in the second half and the Saudis looked set to reach the final.

It all changed in added time as Kwon Kyung-won secured legendary status at Rashid Stadium, striking a 95th minute winner to make Al Ahli the first AFC Champions League finalists from the UAE in a decade.

Over in the east, head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande ensured there was no late drama. They secured a 2-1 win in the home first leg against Gamba Osaka thanks to goal from Huang Bowen and Zheng Zhi. They defended resiliently and secured a goalless draw in Osaka three weeks later to secure passage to the final.

The final was a cagey affair across the two legs. Al Ahli, in their maiden AFC Champions League final, showed defensive solidity, keeping the more experienced Guangzhou Evergrande at bay for 144 minutes before the Chinese side finally found the winner nine minutes into the second half of the second leg at Tianhe Stadium, securing their second continental title just three years after making their AFC Champions League debut.

2016 AFC Champions League: Jeonbuk get their double

Guangzhou Evergrande had established themselves as a new powerhouse in Asian football with two AFC Champions League titles in three years, but ahead of the 2016 edition they had lost talisman Elkeson to rivals Shanghai SIPG who had also recruited Brazilian forward Hulk as they hoped to get their hands on Asia’s top club competition trophy.

The Chinese pair were not the only ones hoping to create a legacy in the competition. Over the previous decade, four different Korean clubs had won the AFC Champions League – Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Seongnam FC, Pohang Steelers & Ulsan Hyundai. So FC Seoul were eager to match their domestic rivals.

Then there was a myriad of West Asian clubs hoping to bring the trophy to their corner of the continent after four years in the East. Inaugural winners Al Ain - boasting one of the rising stars of Asian football in Omar Abdulrahman - were among the favourites to lift the 2016 title and so were 2014 finalists Al Hilal.

As the group stage concluded, nominees bowed out one after the other; of four Saudi clubs, two-time champions Al Ittihad and 2012 finalists Al Ahli were knocked out of the group stage and so were Al Nassr, leaving Al Hilal as the kingdom’s only representatives in the knock-out stages.

In the east, the fall of the giants was as rapid with title holders Guangzhou Evergrande failing to advance from Group H and 2009 winners Gamba Osaka finishing bottom of Group G.

Qatari pair Lekhwiya and El Jaish played out a classic in the Round of 16 with the latter winning 6-4 on aggregate. A few months later they would be merged into one club under the name Al Duhail SC. Two double headers between Korean and Chinese clubs saw Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and FC Seoul set up a semi-final clash at the expense of Shanghai SIPG and Shandong Luneng respectively.

Battling for the top scorer award, Brazilian forwards Leonardo of Jeonbuk and Adriano of FC Seoul both scored in the semi-finals but it was the 2006 champions who would ultimately emerge on top, reaching the final after a 5-3 aggregate win. There was consolation for Adriano, though, as he finished top of the scoring charts with 13 goals, three ahead of his countryman.

On the West side, Abdulrahman ran the show for Al Ain as they advanced steadily through the knock-out stages; eliminating Zobahan 3-1 in the Round of 16, PFC Lokomotiv 1-0 in the quarter-finals and El Jaish 5-3 in the semis to set up a date with Jeonbuk in the final.

It was the second year in a row an Emirati team reached the AFC Champions League final, after a decade of absence and it would also be the second year in a row an Emirati player from the said team would be named AFC Player of The Year with Abdulrahman following in the footsteps of Al Ahli’s Ahmed Khalil, but unfortunately for the Emiratis, it was also the second year their representatives would lose the final.

A brace in the first leg from Leonardo and a strike half an hour into the second leg were enough for Jeonbuk to win the title despite Danilo Asprilla and Lee Myung-joo scoring for Al Ain. Fans of the team from the UAE will look back at the moment Brazilian striker Douglas skied his penalty as one that could have changed the path of their history, but it was Choi Kang-hee’s men who celebrated at the final whistle.

2017 AFC Champions League: Heartbreak for Al Hilal again, Urawa join the club

Two patterns continued in the 2017 AFC Champions League; the reigning champions failing to defend their title and another team adding a second trophy to their name. Unlike Guangzhou Evergrande in the previous edition, Jeonbuk Hyundai did not even take part in the competition the year after their win, and just like Jeonbuk, Urawa Red Diamonds added their second title exactly 10 years after the first one.

Saudi Arabia’s Al Taawoun, IR Iran’s Esteghlal Khuzestan and Hong Kong’s Eastern SC all made their AFC Champions League debuts in 2017. History was made in the group stage of this edition after Chan Yuen-ting became the first woman to coach a men’s team in a top continental club competition, leading Eastern SC in Group G.

Guangzhou Evergrande and Al Ain looked ready to replicate their heights of previous seasons, romping into the quarter-finals, but coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side would crash out at the hands of domestic rivals Shanghai SIPG and the 2002-03 AFC Champions League winners were well beaten 3-0 by Al Hilal at the same stage. Meanwhile, Urawa Red Diamonds beat Jeju United and countrymen Kawasaki Frontale en route to the final four and IR Iran’s Persepolis showed their intent, knocking out Lekhwiya and Al Ahli Saudi FC.

Syrian striker Omar Khrbin impressed in the semi-final’s first leg as he bagged a hat-trick in Al Hilal’s 4-0 dismantling of Persepolis, and he added two more in the return leg to secure a 6-2 aggregate win for Al Hilal and a return to the final three years after losing to Western Sydney Wanderers.

Rafael Silva and Yosuke Kashiwagi combined to drive Urawa Red Diamond past Shanghai SIPG whose only goal in the 2-1 semi-final defeat came through Hulk.

Khrbin and Silve were both on the scoring sheet in Riyadh but it was the Brazilian’s goal that proved more valuable, securing an away goal, an away draw and a relative advantage going into the second leg of the final. In front of 57,000 fans in Saitama, Silva struck late to confirm Urawa’s second title. Kashiwagi won the MVP award and Khrbin’s 10 goals earned him the top scorer’s award.

Poll ends at 16:00 (UTC+8) on April 12

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