Scott McIntyre takes a stab at predicting who will emerge from the group stages of Asia’s premier football tournament.
As we stand on the brink of the latest edition getting underway in earnest, it’s amazing to think just how far the AFC Champions League has come since its humble origins back in the late 1960s when it was born as the Asian Club Championship.
Of those teams that contested the first half a dozen finals, two (both from Israel) no longer compete in AFC competitions, another (Korea’s Yangzee) wound up shortly after they were founded in 1967, whilst a further three are now known by different names – Japan’s Furukawa/JEF Chiba, Korea’s Daewoo Royals/Busan IPark & Iran’s Taj/Esteghlal – with several having fallen on hard times.
Fast forward five decades and we now have clubs signing bona-fide superstars from Europe, South America and Africa, several teams regularly playing in front of packed houses and a prize-money structure that is up there with the best continental events on the planet.
Yes, there’s still plenty of work to be done in terms of boosting the overall appeal and marketing of the tournament as well as in ensuring a wider range of participation but the 2018 edition of the ACL stands to be one of the most competitive on record.
For the second successive season the defending champions (Japan’s Urawa Reds) won’t be present and whilst that’s something that perhaps needs to be addressed what we do have is 32 clubs, all bar a handful of whom can genuinely aim to lift the trophy come December.
Here, FOX Sports Asia presents our preview to the eastern half of the tournament along with the fraught exercise of tipping which clubs will progress from the respective groups.
GROUP E (Jeonbuk (KOR), Kitchee (HKG), Tianjin (CHN), Kashiwa (JPN)
Tainted 2016 champions Jeonbuk return to continental action after a season in which they dominated Korean football and with some strong recruitment and having held onto some of their leading local talent they appear to be the side to beat in Group E.
Tianjin have had a rapid rise to the upper tiers of Chinese football and with some genuine stars in the shape of Axel Witsel and Alexandre Pato along with the dangerous Chinese midfielder Sun Ke they are likely to fight things out for second with Japanese side Kashiwa – who possess, in my opinion, one of the finest keepers in Asia in the brilliant Kosuke Nakamura, along with some lively options in midfield and up front.
Kitchee will be hoping that Diego Forlan can maintain the kind of scoring form he’s shown already in Hong Kong, especially from set pieces, but they appear at long odds to progress here.
SCOTT’S PREDICTED TOP TWO: Jeonbuk & Tianjin
GROUP F (Kawasaki (JPN), Ulsan (KOR), Melbourne Victory (AUS), Shanghai SIPG (CHN)
Of all the groups this appears the one where it’s perhaps easier to pick the two clubs that are likely to progress with the J.League champions and an emergent Chinese superpower looking hard to topple.
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Kawasaki have maintained the core of the squad that claimed their maiden domestic title last season and have added to their depth and with their positive, attack-minded, football they should be favoured to progress if they can fix some defensive concerns whilst SIPG appear to have too much talent up front with the Brazilian trio of Hulk, Oscar and Elkeson easily the most impressive attacking riches of any side in the competition.
Melbourne have been struggling mightily domestically and having lost arguably their best player in Socceroo Mark Milligan to Al Ahli they could also battle to find their way out of the group whilst Ulsan seem to lack the overall polish across their squad and especially in front of goal (with a fallen Japanese star in Yohei Toyoda as their main off-season pickup) to cause much damage in the section.
SCOTT’S PREDICTED TOP TWO: Shanghai SIPG & Kawasaki
GROUP G (Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN), Cerezo Osaka (JPN), Jeju (KOR), Buriram (THA)
Chinese and continental behemoths Guangzhou are the clear headline attraction here and even in a season where their form slightly dipped in 2017 they were still one of the leading clubs both domestically and on the continent and with a largely unchanged squad they can be expected to top this group.
The other three clubs are all very evenly balanced and each will fancy their chances of progressing with Buriram now an experienced ACL side sprinkled with solid imports and numerous Thai internationals whilst Jeju and Cerezo are likely to present a contrast in styles with the more positive Korean outfit a good chance to progress if they can keep things tight at the back.
As FOX Sports Asia pointed out last year, Cerezo are the ‘unofficial’ Asian champions and although they’ll likely lose that title at some point during the group stages with their emphasis on solid defensive organisation and quick counters they’ll still be a decent chance of doing some damage in the tournament.
SCOTT’S PREDICTED TOP TWO: Guangzhou Evergrande & Cerezo Osaka
GROUP H (Sydney FC (AUS), Shanghai Shenhua (CHN), Kashima (JPN), Suwon Bluewings (KOR)
Shanghai struggled for much of last season in the league in China and only booked their place following a late season cup win and appear to probably be the odd side out here in a group that pits genuine heavyweights from Japan and Australia as well as a Korean outfit with designs on the title.
Suwon have made some headline-grabbing transfers, led by the arrival of Dejan Damjanovic from bitter rivals FC Seoul, and after annihilating Thanh Hoa in the playoff they’ve already displayed some positive early season form although it’s there that the A-League’s dominant force, Sydney FC, have a real advantage being right in the thick of their domestic league.
The Australian side may struggle if they lose their coach, Graham Arnold, to the national team after the World Cup but they appear to be not only strong contenders to emerge from the group but also to potentially go all the way whilst Kashima have maintained the core of their squad that finished second in the J.League last year and have added some star power with the return of national team fullback Atsuto Uchida and also appear a strong chance of progressing.
SCOTT’S PREDICTED TOP TWO: Sydney FC & Kashima