Battle lines drawn for ACL rivals
The stage is set for the AFC Champions League 2009 and there never has been a better time to take a good look at the groups and what they portend for the teams.
Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia), Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan), Al Ahli (UAE), Saba Battery (Iran)
All four teams in this group have decent pedigree and three of them – Hilal, Pakhtakor and Saba Battery – have previous AFC Champions League experience to bank on.
Pakhtakor are in their seventh straight ACL campaign and will be looking to make up for their 2008 heartbreak.
All four sides have tremendous fan support, which means the away games will count heavily towards the points, besides deep pockets to make key buys.
Hilal and Pakhtakor look like the two obvious candidates from this group for berths in the next phase.
Persepolis (Iran), Al Shabab (Saudi Arabia), Al Gharafa (Qatar), Playoff winner (West)
An exciting series of contests can be expected in this group, which contains some of the biggest names in West Asian club football.
Persepolis, Shabab and Gharafa have all seen ACL action in the past and know well what awaits them on the continental stage.
The face-off between Shabab and Persepolis – two clubs with some of the biggest fan following in Asia – would be interesting to watch. Al Gharafa would be determined to prove they are no rollovers.
The top two spots could be taken up by Persepolis and Shabab but surprises cannot be ruled out.
Al Jazira (UAE), Esteghlal (Iran), Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia), Umm Salal (Qatar)
The so called ‘Group of Death’ – according to the current poll on the-afc.com – this section features two-time former champions Al Ittihad, and two of the fastest rising clubs in West Asia in Umm Salal and Al Jazira.
Add to this the classy pedigree and reputation of Esteghlal, one of the most popular clubs in Iran, and the picture is complete.
The upstarts from UAE and Qatar are expected to give the seasoned campaigners a run for their money. But it remains to be seen if they can prevail over the experience and wiles of the two heavyweights.
Only Ittihad have seen action in the ACL in its current avatar but Esteghlal are no strangers to the cut-throat competition, having won the Asian Club Championship in 1990.
A top-two finish is within the grasp of Ittihad and Esteghlal if they manage to keep the others at bay.
Bunyodkor (Uzbekistan), Al Shabab (UAE), Sepahan (Iran), Al Ettifaq (Saudi Arabia)
Sepahan and Bunyodkor are expected to make a one-two finish in this section, which also has newcomers Shabab and Ettifaq.
The power and confidence of Sepahan and Bunyodkor was on display in the previous editions and only a brave man would bet against their qualifying for the last 16.
Shabab and Ettifaq are big names to reckon with locally but may lack the experience and firepower required to succeed on the Asian platform.
The match-up to watch out for would be between last year’s rivals Sepahan and Bunyodkor.
Ulsan Hyundai (Korea Republic), Newcastle Jets (Australia), Beijing Guo’an (China), Nagoya Grampus (Japan)
Going purely by previous ACL slug-out experiences, Ulsan and Beijing can claim to have a treasure trove of memories.
Both sides have been in the thick of continental action and know what kind of opponents to expect.
Newcastle and Nagoya are debutants but the Australian and Japanese side will be keen to emulate the success of Adelaide and Gamba, respectively.
The long-running rivalry between Japanese and Korean clubs will once again take centre stage.
Gamba Osaka, (Japan), FC Seoul (Korea Republic), Sriwijaya (Indonesia), Shandong Luneng (China)
Gamba Osaka, the reigning champions, squeezed into the draw at the very last minute in dramatic fashion but the Japanese club’s determination to defend their crown is not in doubt.
Shandong are the only other side in this group to have seen continental fireworks before.
Debutants Sriwijaya are not expected to pose much of a problem.
A three-cornered fight is likely to decide the top two positions, which guarantees a last 16 berth.
Shanghai Shenhua (China), Kashima Antlers (Japan), Suwon Bluewings (Korea Republic), Playoff winner (East)
All three teams have seen top-flight continental action, making for an interesting tussle.
Shanghai, Kashima and Suwon all have a huge fan base and at least one of these clubs – Shanghai – has made the 2009 ACL a priority.
The winner of the playoff is expected to provide a surprise angle to the battle.
All in all, an unpredictable and widely open group, which means the clubs have everything to play for.
Central Coast Mariners (Australia), Tianjin Teda (China), Kawasaki Frontale (Japan), Pohang Steelers (Korea Republic)
At first glance, Kawasaki and Pohang look like solid bets to progress to the next stage. Both are big clubs with previous ACL experience.
In fact, Pohang twice won the Asian Club Championship in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
But the spoilsport factor of hungry first-timers Tianjin and Central Coast Mariners cannot be ruled out completely. The duo might be new to the continental fray but quite capable of springing a surprise or two.
Tianjin, with their huge fan base and players, in particular, could put a spanner in the hopes of the fancied two.