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East Zone: Contenders, big matches and key questions - we break down the 2021 AFC Champions League draw

Kuala Lumpur: The path to AFC Champions League glory was revealed on Wednesday, with an expanded draw delivering several potential classics.

In lieu of waiting until April’s kick-off, we are jumping straight into this year’s extended field, analysing the contenders, the challengers and the storylines ahead in the East Zone of Asia’s premier club football competition.

Join as we look at what to expect, what to ask and what to watch in the matches ahead.

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BG Pathum Thani United FC (THA)
Ulsan Hyundai FC (KOR)
Viettel FC (VIE)
Beijing FC (CHN)/Brisbane Roar (AUS)/Kaya FC-Iloilo (PHI) (Play-off winner)

Who has the pedigree?

Perhaps more acutely than in any other group in the entire draw, defending champions Ulsan Hyundai are the team with the strongest history in the competition.

The two-time kings of the continent are appearing for the fifth consecutive season, while BG Pathum Thani and Viettel FC – both champions of their respective leagues – are taking their first steps on the main stage of Asia’s football festival.

The big question: Can Hong Myung-bo replicate Kim Do-hoon's success?

They are the team to beat, but Ulsan’s rivals could find themselves trying to beat quite a different team than the one who proved themselves as Asia’s best in 2020.

Last month’s triumph in Doha was the final act for head coach Kim Do-hoon, since replaced by legendary Korean defender Hong Myung-bo, and several players, including star striker Júnior Negrão, are either confirmed to have departed or rumoured to be on the way out.

Replacements like Lukas Hinterseer could yet strengthen Ulsan, but how many of the 2020 champions will be in the line-up for the first match of the title defence?

Key match-up

The spotlight is on Ulsan, but the looming clashes between BG Pathum Thani and Viettel FC should be special. They will certainly be anticipated - not since the 2008 meeting between Nam Dinh and Krung Thai Bank have clubs from Thailand and Vietnam met in the AFC Champions League group stage.

Elsewhere, Beijing FC will be eager to avenge their 2020 quarter-final defeat to Ulsan, but they’ll need to navigate the play-offs first if they are to have the opportunity.

Jiangsu FC (CHN)
Nagoya Grampus (JPN)
Johor Darul Ta’zim (MAS)
FC Pohang Steelers or Ratchaburi FC (THA) (Play-off winners)

Who has the pedigree?

Their place in the group stage isn’t confirmed yet, but three-time Asian champions and 2009 AFC Champions League winners Pohang Steelers will be the Group F team with the most impressive history, provided they can find a way past Thailand’s Ratchaburi FC.

Jiangsu and Nagoya Grampus are returning to the AFC Champions League after lengthy periods in the continental wilderness, while Malaysian powerhouse Johor Darul Ta’zim made their first appearance in 2019.

The big question: What sort of Jiangsu will we see?

In a year of unique challenges they were Chinese football’s success story, taking the Chinese Super League by storm to win the title for the first time ever under Cosmin Olaroiu.

But few know what to expect from Jiangsu come April. Alex Teixeira - so important in winning that title - is reportedly out of contract and wanted by teams in three separate continents, while several other question marks hang over a club which has waited four long years for a return to the AFC Champions League.

Key match-up

Take your pick as they will all matter. On paper, Jiangsu and Nagoya Grampus will fancy their chances of progressing but it would be foolish to discount Johor Darul Ta’zim, who beat eventual quarter-finalists Suwon Samsung Bluewings in last year’s competition before travel restrictions prevented them from continuing in the competition.

It is far from an easy group, but it may yet prove to be one of the most open in the 2021 tournament.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC (KOR)
Gamba Osaka (JPN)
Tampines Rovers FC (SIN)
Sydney FC (AUS)

Who has the pedigree?

It is a group which provides the full suite regarding levels of ACL experience. Jeonbuk are tournament royalty, having won the title twice and reached the knockout stage 12 times since 2004, while Gamba also became kings of Asia back in 2008.

Sydney FC are regulars but have never been beyond the Round of 16, while Tampines are making their AFC Champions League debut, 11 years after the last Singaporean club appeared at this level.

The big question: Can Tampines Rovers impact the group picture?

It will be a tremendous challenge for a Tampines Rovers side facing the champions of both Korea Republic and Australia, as well as J1 League runners-up Gamba Osaka, but the Singaporean side will be hopeful of providing stern competition for their more illustrious rivals

Little is expected of them and – with just one team from the group guaranteed to advance to the Round of 16 – every opponent will be gunning for maximum points against Gavin Lee’s men, whose results could significantly influence the group table.

If the Stags do find a way to compete, Singapore’s return to the AFC Champions League could be a marriage made in heaven.

Key match-up

Sydney FC and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors know each other well from last season’s group stage, where the Korean side won both of their matches, but Sydney felt unlucky to have lost on both occasions.

Steve Corica’s side showed how effective they can be at the AFC Champions League level with a 4-0 win over Shanghai SIPG once they were already eliminated, but they would have much preferred a chance to atone for their defeats to Jeonbuk.

The 2021 draw has given them precisely that.

Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)
Guangzhou FC (CHN)
United City FC (PHI)
Daegu FC (KOR) or Chiangrai United (THA)

Who has the pedigree?

Guangzhou are two-time AFC Champions League winners who are appearing in the tournament for the 10th straight year, and easily the most accomplished club in this section of the draw.

Kawasaki Frontale have appeared on six prior occasions, reaching the quarter-finals three times, while United City - as the first side from the Philippines to reach the tournament proper - are untested in the group stage.

The big question: Will Kawasaki Frontale’s dominance translate to Asia?

Of the 40 teams that will begin the group stage in April, few if any qualified in a fashion as impressive as Kawasaki Frontale, who were crowned champions of Japan by a stunning 18-point.

"The job now is to repeat the dose in Asia but Toru Oniki’s side has many strong contributors and they will be eager to go deep into the competition."

Key match-up

Kawasaki Frontale and Guangzhou are expected to battle for top spot, and it promises to be a fascinating duel.

While the Japanese side are riding high, Guangzhou - one of the most successful Asian clubs of the past decade - are coming off a disappointing 2020 at home and abroad, culminating in a rare group stage elimination.

Shandong Luneng FC (CHN)
Port FC (THA)
Kitchee SC (HKG)
Cerezo Osaka (JPN)/Melbourne City (AUS)/Shan United (MYA)

Who has the pedigree?

Shandong have more than 20 years of history in Asian club competitions, and they have reached the AFC Champions League quarter-finals on multiple occasions.

In contrast, Kitchee are appearing for only the second time after their group stage exit in 2018, while Port FC will adorn Asian club football’s biggest stage for the first time.

The big question: Can Dejan Damjanovic break the all-time scoring record?

Kitchee may be considered outsiders to advance beyond the group stage, but they have enlisted one of the competition's all-time greats in their attempt to do so, with 39-year-old striker Dejan Damjanovic putting pen to paper earlier this month.

The former Montenegro international has found the net 36 times in the competition, scoring for FC Seoul, Beijing FC and Suwon Samsung Bluewings. That tally puts him just one behind Korean legend Lee Dong-gook, giving Damjanovic at least six chances to equal, or break the all-time record.

Key match-up

The full picture won’t be complete until after the playoffs, but Group J is wide open. Hong Kong’s Kitchee are the only league champions in the section and none of the teams, including any of the potential playoff winners, were part of the 2020 cast, making every game crucial in the race to the knockout stage.

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