Asian Champions League Preview (2): Can The West Be The Best Once Again?

Asian Editor John Duerden runs the rule over the western challenge for the 2009 Asian Champions League...
The Asian Champions League started in 2003 and the tally stands at 3-3 between West and East Asia.

That doesn’t quite tell the whole story as UAE and Saudi Arabian clubs won the first three editions only for the trophy to spend the last three years residing in South Korea and Japan. No clubs from the West made the last four in 2008...

 The momentum certainly seems to be in the east and the challenge from Japan, South Korea and China is going to be strong.

West Asian clubs can never be discounted however – the talent is still there in Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar with some clubs able to afford talent that is still beyond the reach of any in leagues C,J and K.

Not Central Asia though. There is money in Uzbekistan football at the moment and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the score between East and West could still be tied at the end of 2009.

Group A

Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)

A real powerhouse of Saudi and Asian football even if the club has a habit of shooting itself in the foot from time to time – just take a look at how they lost coach Cosmin Olariuo last week. Fellow Romanian Catalin Necula is the temporary (is there any other kind in the middle-east?) successor and knows that the fans demand success.

Always a dramatic club to follow, the first West Asian outfit to take advantage of the ‘3 plus 1 rule’ by signing South Korea’s Seol Ki-hyeon, Al Hilal has real talent in the shape of Yasser Al Qahtani and should make it into the last eight. But it is the midfield, with Swedish Christian Wilhelmsson, Libyan Tariq Al-Taib and Romanian Meril Radoi, that is the team’s strength.

Pahktakor (Uzbekistan)

The other Tashkent titan is a little put out at the sudden rise of Bunyodkor. In the early years of the champions league it was Pakhtakor that impressed in the competition and was usually somewhere to be found in the knockout stage. The club has spent big in recent months and will fancy their chances of progressing. Fans will demand it - especially if Bunyodkor, as expected, do so.

Al Ahli (UAE)

The four-time champions are starting out in a tough group just as their challenge for the 2009 UAE title reaches its climax. They can’t afford to take their eyes of the ball if they are going to reach the second round. The Dubai outfit do have a not-so-secret weapon. Brazilian striker Bare helped Gamba Osaka to the knockout stage last season before around $10 million tempted him westwards and Egyptian Hosni Abd Rabo is a dangerous player. The team is in good form, hasn’t lost since October 4 and last weekend defeated leaders Al Jazira to go top.

Saba Battery (Iran)

Being one of the smaller teams in Tehran isn’t much fun for anyone, surrounded by fanatics of the blue or red persuasion. That is way the club moved to the city of Qom in 2008. It may not be a football hotbed but Saba finished third last season to book a place in the Asian Champions League for the second time in three years. If the club are to do better than their first round exit in 2006, they will need Iranian international midfielder Gholamreza Rezaei to be at his influential best.

Group B

Al Gharafa (Qatar)

Any team that contains the Iraqi 2007 Asian Cup stars such as Younis Mahmoud and Nashat Akram has the chance to do well in any Asian competition. The club has the money and strength in depth to go far – though is better going forward then defending.

If the team makes the last eight for the first time, as it should, Clemerson de Araujo will get another chance to show what he can do in East Asia. The Brazilian striker shot Gamba Osaka to the 2005 J-league title before breaking Kansai hearts by leaving. Boss Marcos Paqueta knows all about West Asian and especially Saudi Arabian football.

Persepolis (Iran)

It is nice to see one of the biggest clubs in Asia back in the competition. The team has struggled a little since winning the domestic title last season. But the talent is still there and prodigal son Ali Karimi has been in fine form since returning to the Reds and the enigmatic Alireza Vahedi Nikbakht is keen to remind Asia what he can do. Home form should see the team through.

Sharjah (UAE)

The club qualified through the play-offs by brushing aside Dempo from India. But it will be a shock if they finish in the top two of the group – they are more concerned with keeping clear of the bottom of the UAE league. Hard to see a place in the last eight for the club especially as Brazilian stars Anderson Barbosa and Roberto Lopes are injured.

Al Shabab (Saudi Arabia)

The Riyadh club has just about recovered from their exit at the 2006 quarter-final stage when they were thrashed in the first leg 6-0 by Korea’s Ulsan. That shouldn’t happen this time as the club is more experienced and a little more solid. Not in the class of the giants of Saudi football but with strikers like Naji Majrashi and Kuwaiti goal machine Ahmad Ajab, Al Shabab carry an offensive threat.    

Group C

Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia)

The Jeddah stars won in 2004 and 2005 and were especially impressive in the second win. At that time, it looked as if the Tigers were about to establish a dynasty. It didn’t happen. They are back in the competition, they are also challenging for the domestic title with rivals Al Hilal,  and will always be in the running – any Asian team with Emad Moteab in attack will score goals.

Al Jazira (UAE)

Before last weekend, the team was well on course to lift the first ever professional title in the UAE but were defeated and outplayed by Al Ahli. Still, the team is hungry and should not be underestimated. Brazilian striker Fernando Baiano has been scoring for fun and has been ably supported by big-money signing midfielder Rafeal Sobis in midfield.

Esteghlal (Iran)

The Tehran giants have already done better than their last performance as they were throw out of the 2007 edition for failing to submit their player list before the deadline. Fans of the Blues could not bear the Reds going to the knockout stage without them. There is no greater rivalry in Asia and coach Amir Ghaleneoi is keen to restore his continental reputation after the disappointment of taking Iran to the quarter-finals of the 2007 Asian Cup. International star Arash Borhani is the one to watch.

Umm Salal (Qatar)

Umm Salal qualified for the competition by winning the Emir Cup final. The club will win the Asian Champions league – if not this season then soon. The reason is the presence of a certain Brazilian striker who has a habit of playing for teams that win the tournament. Magno Alves is a goal machine who knows all about Asia. He was the second highest top scorer in the K-League in 2003 with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, then scored loads in Japan for Oita Trinita and Gamba Osaka before leaving for Jeddah to wow the fans of Al Ittihad.

Group D

Bunyodkor (Uzbekistan)

The Tashkent team is one of the favourites this time which is what you would expect as half of the Uzbek national team and South American imports such as Rivaldo and Jose Luis Villanueva play for the blue boys. Fans of the team are still cursing the second half of the semi-final first leg in Adelaide last season when the hosts raced into a three-goal lead. With the lack of competition in the domestic league, Bunyodkor can afford to take their eyes off the ball to some extent and could go far.

Al Shabab (UAE)

The champions have struggled at times in the league this season even with the Brazilian talents of Renato and Marcos Assuncao. Already out of the running in the UAE League, under coach Toninho Cerezo they are looking to regroup and plan an Asian assault. It won’t be easy.

Ittifaq (Saudi Arabia)

Ittifaq may not be a Saudi powerhouse in the mould of Al Hilal or Ittihad but they are not to be underestimated. Hailing from the football-mad eastern city of Damman, no team will relish a visit to the Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium. Their form this season has been inconsistent.

Sepahan (Iran)

Sepahan know all about the Asian Champions league – losing the 2007 final to Urawa Reds. Not long after that disappointment came the heartbreak of the last day of the 2008 season when they lost the title in the 96th minute at Persepolis. Ehsan Hajysafi scored a great goal that day and the young midfielder is one of Asia’s brightest young talent and already an international despite just turning 19.

John Duerden

Asia Editor