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Matchday One: 5 Things To Look Out For

Kuala Lumpur: The 18th edition of the AFC Champions League gets underway on Monday with holders Al Hilal SFC among the teams in action on the opening day of what promises to be another magnificent journey through to November’s final. 

As ever, their will be plenty of new faces on display, with a FIFA World Cup winner, an Iranian debutant and a long-awaited return among’s five things to look out for on Matchday One.

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1. Iniesta’s bow

Andres Iniesta is one of the most decorated and accomplished players to have graced the beautiful game, not just in the modern era but of all time, and he will make his AFC Champions League debut on Wednesday.

Vissel Kobe pulled off a headline-grabbing coup when they lured him to Japan midway through 2018 and, from that day forward, it’s undeniable that fans of Asian football have been dreaming of the much-loved Spaniard appearing in the Continent’s biggest club competition.

After Kobe’s poor first half to their 2019 J.League season it appeared unlikely, but a strong second half of the year culminated in Emperor’s Cup success on January 1 and, just over a month later, the 35-year-old will likely be chief orchestrator in midfield against Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim at Misaki Stadium.

Just like his former Barcelona midfield partner Xavi, Iniesta has won the biggest prizes in the game and was part of arguably the greatest club side there has ever been. Just like his great friend at Al Sadd, we are privileged he is now part of the Asian game.

2. Champions vs Debutants

Al Hilal's long wait for that elusive AFC Champions League crown ended last November as they defeated Urawa Red Diamonds to become deserved kings of the Continent and wrap up a record-breaking seventh Asian title.

With their star-studded squad almost untouched since that famous night at Saitama Stadium, Razvan Lucescu’s side will start the 2020 campaign among the favourites once more and it would be hard to name a side with stronger title credentials.

The Riyadh club kick off their campaign against one of the lesser known teams, with Islamic Republic of Iran’s Shahr Khodro set to make their debut less than seven years after being founded following a fourth-place finish in the Iranian Pro League and subsequent penalty shootout play-off win over Qatar’s Al Sailiya.

It has been an incredible rise to prominence for the Mashhad side and on Tuesday at Dubai’s Zabeel Stadium they will line up against the best in Asia. Should they upset the odds once more, it would rank as arguably their biggest achievement.

3. Melbourne momentum

Along with their great rivals Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory are the most successful side in Australia. But their achievements at home have not been replicated on the Continent, with one Round of 16 appearance in seven attempts the best they have managed.

While it’s fair to say the distance they have to travel for away games puts them at a geographical disadvantage, last year – for the first time – Melbourne were eliminated from the competition without recording a single win.

Three defeats on the road continued their run of having never won away from home as their winless streak stretched to 22 games. So a Play-off Round fixture away at 2018 champions Kashima Antlers looked like a huge ask for a side that had also been struggling domestically.

But Carlos Perez Salvachua got his tactics spot on and Andrew Nabbout’s second-half strike was enough to secure a stunning 1-0 victory and a place in the group stage as the Victoria side finally shred their away-day blues.

Melbourne have returned to home comforts for their opening Group E game against Thai debutants Chiangrai United and the Big V will start as favourites. If they can secure another win, there may well be some renewed optimism around the Rectangular Stadium.

4. The Return of Sharjah

Back in 2004 when the AFC Champions League was in its infancy, Sharjah FC were one of 16 teams fighting it out to become the competition’s second winners. Topping their group unbeaten, they eventually exited at the quarter-finals after a heavy defeat by Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.

At the time they were among the biggest clubs in the United Arab Emirates, having won titles in the 70s, 80s and 90s. But their success dried up and, although they did appear in the 2009 group stage, Sharjah fell behind other Emirati powerhouses such as Al Ain and Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli Dubai).

However, an incredible 2018-19 campaign saw them return to the summit of UAE football as Abdulaziz Al Anberi, against all the odds, guided them to their sixth league title to secure a ticket to the AFC Champions League after a fairy tale season.

Boasting former Al Ain forward Caio Lucas, who played in the 2016 final and was recently signed on loan from Benfica, Sharjah have added real quality ahead their opening Group C game against Al Taawoun on Tuesday. More than a decade since their last appearance, their fans will hope it’s been worth the wait.

5. Al Nassr’s revenge?

It was a tie that went back and forth until Baghdad Bounedjah’s penalty late in the second leg finally saw off Al Nassr’s challenge as Al Sadd edged past the Saudi champions and into the semi-finals after a 4-3 aggregate win.

To make Al Nassr’s last-eight exit worse, the Riyadh club had to watch on as city rivals Al Hilal went on to be crowned Continental champions after eliminating Al Sadd, following another close encounter, in the semi-finals.

The 2019 quarter-finals were less than five months ago, but Al Nassr have been handed an early chance to avenge that defeat when they host the Doha side in their opening Group D game at Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium.

In a tough group that also includes Al Ain and Iranian side Sepahan, a winning start at home could well be key for Al Nassr. Victory may taste all the sweeter should it come against a side that ended their dreams before being unable to halt those of a bitter rival.

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