The first round of fixtures in the group stages of Asia’s premier club football competition - The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League - gets underway this season on Monday, 20th February.
While the non-participation of the 2016 winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (South Korea), who were banned following a bribery scandal in K-League, has cast a cloud of disappointment over the tournament, the 32 teams remaining will be keen to stake their claim to the continent’s throne.
The teams have been divided into eight groups of four teams each and only the top two progress from each group, which means a strong start to this phase is very important.
Al Taawoun FC vs PFC Lokomotiv: Al Taawoun are appearing in their first ever AFC Champions League campaign following a club best fourth-placed finish in the Saudi Professional League. The team from Buraidah, coached by former Espanyol manager Constantin Galca, will count on the firepower of former Ajax and Fiorentina striker Mounir El Hamdaoui when they take on PFC Lokomotiv at the King Abdullah stadium in Buraidah.
But the Uzbek champions are the favourites for this match as they look to better their quarterfinal appearance last season. Captain Timur Kapadze will be their key man in midfield.
Venue: King Abdullah Stadium, Buraidah
Kick-off: February 20, 18:40 UTC +3
Al Ahli FC vs Esteghlal FC: UAE Pro League champions Al Ahli are probably the stronger side in the group and against Esteghlal, who are playing at this stage after a three-year gap, the Dubai-based club is expected to win. The 2015 runners-up have signed the prolific Senegalese Makhete Diop and he is expected to ramp up their firepower in the company of 2015 AFC Player of the year Ahmed Khalil.
Esteghlal have history in this competition, having won it in 1970 and 1991 (when it was called Asian Club Championship) and reached the semifinals in 2013. The side from Tehran overcame Qatar’s Al Sadd club on penalties to reach the group stages and have several experienced Iranian internationals like goalkeeper Mehdi Rahmati, who will be tasked with keeping the Al Ahli attack at bay.
Venue: Rashid Stadium, Dubai
Kick-off: February 20, 20:15 UTC+4
Iranian team Esteghlal Khouzestan FC hosts Saudi Arabain side Al Fateh FC while the other game in the opening round in this group sees Lekhwiya SC welcome UAE’s Al Jazira club to Doha.
Esteghlal Khouzestan FC vs Al Fateh FC: This match at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat should be an intriguing game in the sense this is a battle between relative newcomers in this competition. Though the Iranian side is based in Ahvaz, this game is held in Muscat because of the diplomatic tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia (from where Al Fateh is from).
Esteghlal Khouzestan were established only in 2011 but won the Iranian Pro League last season after making a number of strong acquisitions and are making their debut AFC Champions League appearance. Al Fateh, on the other hand, are making their second appearance at this stage. They lost out in the group stages last year and made this far after getting the better of Uzbek side FC Nasaf in the playoffs.
Captain and defensive lynchpin Mohammad Tayebi will be the key man for the ‘hosts’ while Brazilian striker Nathan Junior will take up the attacking mantle for Al Fateh.
Venue: Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, Muscat
Kick-off: February 20, 15:00 UTC +4
Lekhwiya SC vs Al Jazira: Though the hosts Lekhwiya FC failed to finish in the top two positions in the Qatar Pro League, the Emir Cup win meant they nailed a spot in the tournament. They crashed out in the round of 16 stage last year but should prove to be a tough opposition to Al Jazira, having the likes of former Granada striker Youssef El Arabi in their ranks.
Under former Ajax manager (also Chelsea and Barcelona assistant manager) Hank Ten Cate, Al Jazira will badly want to better their 2012 and 2014 performances when they reached the knockout stages. The UAE President's Cup winners' trump card will be Brazilian winger Leonardo who was the driving force behind Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ victorious AFC Champions League campaign in 2016.
Venue: Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium, Doha
Kick-off: February 20, 16:50 UTC +3
UAE’s Al Ain will welcome Iranian side Zobahan FC in the first round of fixtures in this group before Al Ahli FC host Uzbekistan’s FC Bunyodkor.
Al Ain vs Zobahan FC: Al Ain boast an envious record on the continental stage, having won the tournament in 2003 and finished runners up in 2005 and 2016. With the likes of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, who assumes the playmaking duties, the Emirati side are one of the front runners to win the tournament.
Their Iranian opponents, who qualified after winning the domestic Hazfi cup, are no pushovers, though. They were the runners-up in 2010 and interestingly, were eliminated by Al Ain last year in the round of 16, which should add a little spice to this encounter. Morteza Tabrizi, their top scorer from last season, will once again be key to their lofty ambitions this season.
Venue: Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain
Kick-off: February 21, 19:15 UTC +4
Al Ahli FC vs FC Bunyodkor: The Saudi Arabian champions will be desperate to get their continental campaign off to a perfect start against the Uzbek league runners-up who had to negotiate a playoff to get to this stage. An inconsistent Al Ahli failed to progress past a group which also had Al Ain last year and they will be intent on putting the record straight this time. Former Tottenham Hotspur boss Christian Gross will want his Syrian forward Omar Al Somah to start firing on all cylinders from the get-go.
The Tashkent-based Bunyodkor are a regular fixture in the continent’s elite tournament and will be hoping that their squad, which brims with young stars and experienced hands, will pull them through what is a tough group. 2015 AFC Youth Player of the Year Dostonbek Khamdamov is an ever-present name in their midfield and Al Ahli will do well to keep the 20-year-old in check.
Venue: King Abdullah Sports City, Jeddah
Kick-off: February 21, 20:15 UTC +3
Iranian club Persepolis FC play Saudi Arabian team Al Hilal SFC while Qatar’s Al Rayyan SC take on UAE-based Al Wahda in the first round of fixtures in Group D.
Persepolis FC vs Al Hilal SFC: Persepolis, who finished second in the Iranian Pro League last year, take on the very team who eliminated them in the round of 16 in 2015 which remains their best showing in this tournament. Iran international Mehdi Taremi, who finished the top scorer of their domestic league last season, will be their key man.
Saudi Arabian league runners-up Al Hilal are two-time winners of the tournament in 1991 and 2000 and were the runners up in 2014. With the likes of former Porto and Nice forward Carlos Eduardo in the squad, the Ramon Diaz coached side will fancy their chances of winning all three points from this encounter.
Venue: Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, Muscat
Kick-off: February 21, 19:00 UTC +4
Al Rayyan SC vs Al Wahda: The Qatar Star League champions, Al Rayyan, are coached by none other than the legendary Michael Laudrup and have made a return to the competition after a three-year gap. They have failed to make it out of the group stage in the last six attempts and Laudrup will want attacking midfielder Rodrigo Tabata and Spanish striker Sergio Garcia to be at the top of their game. Much will be expected of Garcia, who was a part of Spain’s 2008 Euro winning team.
The Abu Dhabi-based Al Wahda are coached by former Mexican coach Javier Aguirre and are making their first appearance in the group stages since 2011. They had to negotiate a playoff against Jordan’s Al Wehdat but might be slight-outsiders to win all three points against Al Rayyan. UAE Pro League top scorer Sebastian Tagliabue is in hot form this season too and the Argentine will be Aguirre’s ace.
Venue: Jassim Bin Hammad Stadium, Doha
Kick-off: February 21, 18:15 UTC +3
Brisbane Roar vs Muangthong United: Brisbane Roar, coached by former Socceroo John Aloisi, made a stunning entry into this year’s AFC Champions League group stages by eliminating the fancied Shanghai Shenhua (who had Carlos Tevez in their ranks) in the play-off. This is their third campaign in the tournament and will want to progress past the group stages for the first time. Last season’s A-League top scorer Jamie Maclaren will be their star man.
Thai champions Muangthong United are only in their second AFC Champions League group stage appearance and will be hoping to put behind the horrendous campaign in 2013 where they won just a single point in six games. South Korean star Lee Ho, signed from Jeonbuk Hyundai last month will be their go-to man in midfield. But Brisbane are the favourites to win this clash.
Venue: Brisbane Stadium, Brisbane
Kick-off: February 21, 20:00 UTC +11
Kashima Antlers vs Ulsan Hyundai FC: Kashima Antlers made headlines back in December 2016 when they gave Real Madrid a scare in the FIFA Club World Cup final. The J-League winners, however, are yet to win an AFC Champions League title and will need to make their defence watertight if they want to start off on a right note against Ulsan Hyundai. Attacking midfielder Mu Kanazaki is the Japanese side’s biggest threat.
South Korean side Ulsan Hyundai had to negotiate a tough playoff against Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC to return to the tournament after a three-year hiatus. The 2012 winners are outsiders against Kashima Antlers but if Croatian midfielder Ivan Kovacec continues his impressive form from last season, they could make a game of it.
Venue: Kashima Soccer Stadium, Ibaraki
Kick-off: February 21, 19:00 UTC +9
Western Sydney Wanderers take on Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds on 21st February while FC Seoul host Shanghai SIPG in the other Group F encounter.
Western Sydney Wanderers vs Urawa Red Diamonds: The A-League runners-up Western Sydney Wanderers made quite an impact in 2014 when they won the competition in their very first attempt. Coached by former Australian international Tony Popovic, The Wanderers qualified to this year’s tournament by finishing as runners-up in the A-League grand final last year. Veteran forward Brendon Sentalab will be expected to be their key threat again.
They are up against tough opposition in J-League runners-up Urawa Red Diamonds. The 2007 winners were eliminated by FC Seoul in the round of 16 last season but will be doubly determined to progress further this year. This game will be a tight battle and striker Shinzo Koroki will be the Japanese side’s trump card.
Venue: Campbelltown Sports Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: February 21, 19:00 UTC +11
FC Seoul vs Shanghai SIPG: Korean champions FC Seoul lost out to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the semifinal last season and will want to go better this time around. They had an impressive campaign last time around and with the likes of former Arsenal striker Park Chu-Young in their ranks, are one of the favourites to win the title this time as well.
Shanghai SIPG, coached by former Chelsea manager Andre-Villas Boas, will be a tough nut to crack for the South Korean side. They were bolstered by the signings of Oscar and Ricardo Carvalho. Moreover, having already the likes of Hulk and Elkeson, Shanghai are a major force.
Venue: Seoul World Cup Stadium, Seoul
Kick-off: February 21, 19:30 UTC +9
Japanese outfit Kawasaki Frontale take on South Korea’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the first Group G clash before Guangzhou Evergrande host Hong Kong’s Eastern SC.
Kawasaki Frontale vs Suwon Samsung Bluewings: Kawasaki Frontale are returning to the group stages of the AFC Champions League after a three-year gap after finishing third in the J-league last season. 36-year-old playmaker Kengo Nakamura, who has been with the club throughout his career, is still going strong and was named the J-League Player of the year in 2016. He will be central to Kawasaki’s ambitions of downing the Bluewings.
The side from Suwon have won the tournament back in 2000 and 2001 but are yet to taste victory in the tournament’s current format. They were eliminated in the group stages last season and had a poor campaign domestically as well. But a Korean FA Cup victory meant they qualified for the Champions League. Brazilian striker Santos is their most potent attacking threat but they might be slight outsiders for this game.
Venue: Kawasaki Todoroki Stadium, Kawasaki
Kick-off: February 22, 19:00 UTC +9
Guangzhou Evergrande vs Eastern SC: Guangzhou Evergrande, coached by World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari, are in prime form having won the Chinese Super League for a sixth consecutive season. The 2015 champions suffered a shock group stage elimination in this tournament last season and the squad that includes the likes of Paulinho and Jackson Martinez will be itching to set that record straight.
Facing the unenviable task of taking on the Tigers are Hong Kong champions Eastern SC. They are in uncharted territory, having become the first side from Hong Kong to reach this stage of the Champions League. Spanish striker Manuel Bleda is their key man but they have a daunting task on their hands against Guangzhou.
Venue: Tianhe Stadium, Guangzhou
Kick-off: February 22, 20:00 UTC +8
Adelaide United welcome Japan’s Gamba Osaka while South Korean outfit Jeju United FC host Jiangsu FC in the first round fixtures in Group H.
Adelaide United vs Gamba Osaka: Adelaide United made a return to the AFC Champions League after last appearing in 2012 by winning the A-League last season. Interestingly, Adelaide were the runners up in 2008 when Gamba Osaka beat them 5-0. Coached by former Barcelona defender Guillermo Amor, Adelaide will bank on Spanish midfielder Isaias Sanchez and defender Dylan McGowan to give the impetus in attack and in defence.
On the other hand, the 2008 winners from Suita will want to put the group stage exit they suffered last season behind them and start this season on the right note against Adelaide. Club legend Yasuhito Endo and the highly-rated youngster Yosuke Ideguchi should be their key threats.
This should be a tightly-contested clash.
Venue: Hindmarsh Stadium, Adelaide
Kick-off: February 22, 19:30 UTC +10:30
Jeju United FC vs Jiangsu FC: Jeju United are making only their second appearance in the competition after finishing third in the K-League last season. They will be riding high on confidence after an impressive league campaign and Brazilian forward Marcelo Toscano, who was their top scorer and notched the highest number of assists, will be the main man.
Posing a tough challenge for the Korean outfit is Chinese Super League runners-up Jiangsu FC who crashed out in the group stages of the Champions League in 2016. But with star signing Alex Teixeira in fine form, along with former Chelsea midfielder Ramires, they would be the favourites to win all three points from this opening round fixture.
Venue: Jeju World Cup Stadium, Jeju
Kick-off: February 22, 20:00 UTC + 9