HONG KONG: South Korean and Japanese teams will look to maintain their stranglehold on the AFC Champions League when Asia’s top club competition kicks off this week.
There are seven matches today and another nine tomorrow as 32 teams start their bids to reach the final in November, with the winner assured of a place in the FIFA Club World Cup.
Since Saudi Arabian giants Al Ittihad triumphed in 2005, South Korean and Japanese sides have consistently come out on top.
The Japanese contingent, buoyed by the national side’s victory in January’s Asian Cup, includes J-League champions Nagoya Grampus, 2008 AFC Champions League winners Gamba Osaka, Cerezo Osaka and Kashima Antlers.
South Korean teams — who made up four of the quarter-finalists in last year’s Champions League — also look formidable.
Defending champions Seongnam Ilhwa failed to qualify but K-League winners FC Seoul are joined by Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Jeju United and Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
Seoul coach Hwangbo Kwan is depending on his foreign imports Dejan Damjanovic, Mauricio Molina, Adilson dos Santos and Server Djeparov to inspire his team.
“We have four foreign recruits who have proved their capabilities in the K-League. I expect them to play a main role in achieving our target to win both the competitions,” he added.
Hwangbo, whose side open their campaign against Al Ain from the United Arab Emirates tomorrow, considers Nagoya Grampus, drawn in the same group, as the biggest threat.
“They are the J-League champions and are the best in Japan. They are a very strong side and the match against them will be very important for us,” Hwangbo said.
Nagoya had a welcome boost ahead of their Champions League opener against China’s Hangzhou Greentown today, beating Kashima to win the Japanese Super Cup at the weekend.
Elsewhere, Al Ittihad, twice winners of the competition, launch their title push with a clash against Iranian outfit Piroozi Athletic on Wednesday.
Last year’s losing finalists, Zobahan of Iran, play Emirates from the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday.
In the same group, Saudi Arabian outfit Al Shabab, 2010 semi-finalists, face Qatar’s Al Rayyan.
Uzbek champions Bunyodkor unveiled 11 new players just days before starting their campaign away against the UAE’s Al Wahda but coach Mirdjalal Kasimov is looking for them to gel quickly.
“A group of players left the team last season but their places have been taken by worthy replacements. I believe the team will now make every effort to achieve higher goals this season,” he said.
“We played five friendly games in Turkey which helped in coordination and team building,” said Kasimov.
Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, semi-finalists last year, play Iran’s Foolad Mobarekeh Sepahan while Australia’s Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory open their campaigns against Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Gamba Osaka.
The 32 teams play in eight groups, split geographically between West Asia and East Asia. — AFP