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Preview – 2021 AFC Champions League: Group I

Tashkent: Uzbekistan's capital welcomes Japanese champions Kawasaki Frontale, Korea Republic's Daegu FC, United City FC of the Philippines and China PR's Beijing FC to Group I of the 2021 AFC Champions League with the action kicking off on Saturday.

Three J1 League titles in the past four years and leading the way this time, Kawasaki will look to bring domestic dominance to the continent, while Daegu return for a second time, Beijing rely on youthful zest and United City are set to make their long-awaited debut in the AFC Champions League.

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The Venues

Bunyodkor Stadium

One of the homes of the Uzbekistan national team, the 34,000-capacity Bunyodkor Stadium has played host to international games since the first official match – a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier between the Uzbeks and Lebanon – took place in March 2013.

Opened the previous year, the bowl-shaped arena – now also known as 'Milliy Stadium' (National Stadium) – is home to five-time Uzbekistan Super League champions FC Bunyodkor and has staged numerous AFC Champions League matches over the years, with the Tashkent giants regulars in the competition between 2012 and 2017.

Lokomotiv Stadium

Home to three-time Uzbekistan Super League champions PFC Lokomotiv, the 8,000-capacity Lokomotiv Stadium was opened in May 2012 and has regularly hosted AFC Champions League matches since the home side debuted in the competition in 2015.

Among the most notable games to have been played at the venue was when Lokomotiv defeated Saudi giants Al Hilal in the 2016 Round of 16 before they went on to lose against eventual runners-up Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates.

Key Men

Akihiro Ienaga – Kawasaki Frontale

Despite being the oldest outfield player on the Kawasaki team, midfielder Akihiro Ienaga has started every J1 League game this season and his importance to his side is underlined by his all-round ability: physically strong, always in control, great vision and execution, and the knack of scoring and creating goals.

Ienaga, who has twice been named in the J1 League Best X1 in the past three years, has seven league goals to his name this season as runaway leaders Kawasaki look to wrap up yet another title. However, unlike other Japanese sides, they have yet to really make inroads on the continent – something the 35-year-old will look to help rectify this year.

Cesinha – Daegu FC

A firm fan favourite due to his charismatic presence and ability to produce the spectacular, Cesinha is Daegu's most prized possession and is set to return to the AFC Champions League for the second time after impressing on his continental debut two years ago.

The 31-year-old Brazilian, who usually plays in the hole behind the front two, is excellent from distance, a fine passer of the ball and a huge creative force for his side. Now in his fifth season at Daegu, no player comes close to his tallies of goals and assists in that time.

Stephan Schrock – United City FC

Technically gifted and a true leader of the United City side, Stephan Schrock is arguably the finest Philippines player of modern times. Having showcased his ability during Ceres Negros's (now United City) memorable AFC Cup runs and scored his country's first and, to date, only AFC Asian Cup goal, the 34-year-old is now set for his AFC Champions League bow.

Born and raised in Germany, the United City captain gained Bundesliga experience with 1899 Hoffenheim and Eintract Frankfurt prior to moving to Ceres in 2017. Since then his link-up play with Bienvenido Marañón – Schrock the provider and Marañón the finisher – has been one of the defining features of the side's success.

Hou Sen – Beijing FC

Having spent his entire career at Beijing FC, 31-year-old goalkeeper Hou Sen is the longest-serving player at the club and perhaps the ideal candidate to lead a youthful side into the AFC Champions League as they look to reach the knockout rounds for the second successive year.

Hou played six of Beijing's eight games in last year's continental competition as they reached the Round of 16 while he also appeared in both the 2012 and 2015 editions for the capital city club. His role in Tashkent will not only be to keep the ball out of the net, but also to use his experience to help his younger teammates.

Encounters to Watch

Two form teams in their respective leagues will face off when Kawasaki take on Daegu in the opening round of fixtures on June 26 and the game has the potential to be a classic, with the Japanese side still unbeaten this season and the Korean team having not lost since early April.

The sides' Brazilian stars are likely to be key with the aforementioned Cesinha and Edgar Silva on fine form for Daegu and Kawasaki's Leandro Damiao currently the top scorer in the J1 League.

While Kawasaki have never been past the quarter-finals and Daegu were eliminated at the group stage in their only appearance, both boast AFC Champions League winners within their ranks.

Kawasaki's Korean goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong was the man between the sticks when Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma were crowned champions back in 2010, while Daegu's recently acquired loan signing Lee Keun-ho won the title with Ulsan Hyundai in both 2012 and 2020.

Another opening-day match-up offers up plenty of intrigue as United City make their AFC Champions League debut against Beijing with the Filipino side looking to create more history for their country.

All eyes will be on the AFC Cup's all-time leading scorer Bienvenido Marañón to see whether he can bring his goalscoring abilities to the most prestigious club competition in Asian football and, up against an inexperienced backline, the Spaniard may just fancy his chances.

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