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AFC Champions League: Young stars set to rise


Kuala Lumpur: The AFC Champions League is the perfect stage for a breakthrough performance for one of Asia's next generation and when the tournament resumes next week, there are several young guns who could be poised to seize their chance to impress.

With six countries represented in the East Zone section of the draw, the-AFC.com has picked out a youngster from each nation to look out for at the Continental competition in Qatar as football fans prepare for an exciting month of action.

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Won Du-jae (Ulsan Hyundai)

Having spent three seasons in Japan's second tier, Won Du-jae returned to his homeland at the beginning of 2020 to join Ulsan Hyundai, but it was with his country that he first announced himself on the Asian stage. At the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020 in January, a string of excellent performances helped Korea Republic claim the title while he was named the tournament's MVP.

Usually deployed in the holding role of Ulsan's midfield, the 22-year-old, who can also play in the heart of defence, is an excellent reader of the game and a pin-point passer. Won was a key figure as his side came agonisingly close to winning the 2020 K League 1 title and, having made his AFC Champions League debut against FC Tokyo in February, will be looking to impress once more in Qatar.


Akhyar Rashid (Johor Darul Ta'zim)

One of the rising stars of Malaysian football, Akhyar Rashid is just 21 years of age but has already represented his country more than 20 times and won a host of titles at club level. A gifted forward, the Kedah native was part of Malaysia's run to the 2018 AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup final before joining Johor Darul Ta'zim from his home state club ahead of the 2019 campaign.

Generally used from the bench during his first season with JDT, Rashid, nevertheless, appeared regularly and was named the Malaysia Super League's Most Promising Player while he also made his AFC Champions League bow in what was his side's tournament debut. With Malaysia's brightest hope Safawi Rasid having departed for Portugal, the stage may be set for Rashid to step forward.


Ekanit Panya (Chiangrai United)

Ekanit Panya enjoyed a breakthrough year with Chiangrai United in 2019 when, such was his form during a loan spell with near neighbours Chiangmai FC, he returned midway through the season to help his hometown club win their first Thai League 1 title, netting in the final two games of the campaign as they pipped Buriram United to the post.

The recently turned 21-year-old's form also saw him called up by the Thailand national team as he played a part in all five of their Asian Qualifiers and, perhaps crucially, scored the decisive goal in a 2-1 victory over the United Arab Emirates. A composed presence with an eye for the killer ball, Ekanit will be looking to continue his upward trajectory when the AFC Champions League resumes in Qatar.


Shuto Abe (FC Tokyo)

Having risen through FC Tokyo's youth ranks, Shuto Abe has enjoyed an excellent 2020 in which he has appeared in the majority of the capital city club's games domestically and made his AFC Champions League debut, while in his second start on the Continent he created the only goal of the game in his side's 1-0 victory over Perth Glory.

A forward-thinking midfielder who is not afraid to take defenders on and is deceptively strong for his size, the 22-year-old is adept at making runs into the box from the inside left channel. In a side replete with attacking talent, Abe adds another string to FC Tokyo's bow as they look to progress to the knockout round for the third time in three appearances.


Trent Buhagiar (Sydney FC)

A speed machine who is widely regarded as one of the fastest players in the A-League, Trent Buhagiar also knows how to find the back of the net, as displayed on his first AFC Champions League start back in March when he skipped past his marker before producing a composed finish to level the score against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Part of Sydney FC's title-winning side, Buhagiar looks to play on the shoulder and get in behind defences. Although game time was largely limited to appearances off the bench in the A-League season, top scorer Adam Le Fondre's exit could pave the way for the 22-year-old to step in when the AFC Champions League resumes.


Chen Wei (Shanghai SIPG)

The deputy to China PR Number 1 Yan Junling, 22-year-old Chen Wei has stepped into the role vacated by his injured teammate with aplomb in recent weeks. Most notably, he saved from Giovanni Moreno as Shanghai SIPG defeated neighbours Shanghai Shenhua on penalties in the Chinese Super League quarter-finals.

With Yan likely still to be sidelined come the AFC Champions League's resumption Chen is expected to continue in the position, but it will not be his first taste of Continental action having also played in the first leg of the 2017 semi-final against Urawa Red Diamonds when Yan was suspended. Three years on, the custodian will get another chance to shine in Asia's most prestigious club competition.

Poll will end on November 17 at 16:00 (UTC+8).

Photos: Johor Darul Ta'zim, Shanghai SIPG, K League, Thai League

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