Who’s going to impress and who’s going to fail miserably? We take a look at the prospects for the 16 teams in the AFC Champions League East Zone.
For the first time since 2013 the AFC Asian Champions League will commence without the presence of the defending champion after Jeonbuk were sensationally barred from participating by an independent judicial body.
Just why the AFC initially chose to place them in the draw despite the club being in clear contravention of their own tournament regulations has still yet to be fully explained.
The scandal-ridden club then opted, brazenly, to take their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport were it was speedily dismissed and we then had the awkward situation of one Hyundai-backed club (Jeonbuk) being replaced by another (Ulsan).
With Brisbane Roar becoming the third club in successive years to progress through two stages of qualification, the final 16 teams for the eastern half of the draw were rounded out, with group stage action kicking off this week in Australia, China, Korea and Japan.
Ahead of the start of the 15th edition of Asia’s premier club competition, Fox Sports Asia takes a look at the four groups and which clubs are likely to progress through to the knockout stage.
Kashima Antlers (JPN), Muangthong United (THA), Brisbane Roar (AUS), Ulsan (Korea)
One of the more open groups on paper, although J.League champion Kashima appear the hot favourites to book one of the qualification spots.
After completing the domestic double last season, in somewhat unusual circumstances having finished 15 points off Urawa on the overall table only to defeat them in the playoff final on away goals, the club then shocked the world by reaching the final of the FIFA Club World Cup and pushing Real Madrid all the way.
Having strengthened their squad with the addition of Brazilian pair Leo Silva and Pedro Junior, Antlers are strong contenders to finish in the top two even if their record in the tournament is patchy.
Thai champions Muangthong have perhaps the best squad ever assembled by a club from that country and having held on to playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin until July (after which he’ll join Japanese club Sapporo on loan) is a major coup.
The fact they’ve started strongly in their local league with back-to-back victories to open the new season and that they defeated Korean champions FC Seoul in pre-season (not conceding a goal in any of those three matches) should also fill them with great belief.
Can Chanathip shine?
Brisbane pulled off the shock of the playoff round by soundly defeating Chinese outfit Shanghai Shenua to book their spot in the group stage and enter the tournament on the back of a seven-match undefeated streak in the A-League.
A strong defensive core complimented by some exciting young attacking talents in the likes of Jamie MacLaren and Brandon Borrello means that the Roar will be right in the mix for a top two finish.
Ulsan’s pre-season preparations were thrown into disarray after their late admission to the competition and they were pushed all the way to penalties to by unheralded Hong Kong outfit Kitchee in the playoff.
New coach Kim Do-hoon will seemingly have his work cut out to guide the Tigers to a top-two finish with Kashima and Brisbane looking the likely pair to progress, although don’t discount Muangthong from that race.
PREDICTION: 1: Kashima; 2: Brisbane; 3: Muangthong; 4: Ulsan
Western Sydney Wanderers (AUS), Urawa Red Diamonds (JPN), FC Seoul (KOR), Shanghai SIPG (CHN)
This appears to be the toughest of the four groups with a pair of former champions in Western Sydney and Urawa and 2013 runners-up FC Seoul along with Chinese powerhouse Shanghai SIPG.
The Wanderers have been struggling for form domestically although as they showed in that astonishing title triumph back in 2014 they are a club that can never been discounted on the continent and although they’re lacking a consistent, out-and-out, goalscorer and have rumours swirling around the future of their coach they still possess enough talent and resolve to be able to navigate a way out of the section.
Urawa were the best Japanese club across the domestic season last year although they didn’t win the title but have maintained the core of their primarily local-based squad and they will be strong contenders here and should enter the tournament in an upbeat mood after playing out a 1-1 draw with group stage opponents FC Seoul in pre-season.
Champions by default after Jeonbuk were docked points last season in relation to the bribery scandal that saw them removed from the ACL, FC Seoul are nonetheless a side stacked with talent and experience and not only should they be good enough to progress from the group they could go a long way thereafter, even if their pre-season form to date has been quite mixed.
Shanghai have spent freely with the headline grabbing additions of both Oscar and Uzbek star Odil Ahmedov and with a core group of very good Chinese talent headlined by Wu Lei and Shi Ke under the guidance of former Europa League winner Andre Villas-Boas the Chinese club appear to be one the favourites to top the section.
PREDCITION: 1: Shanghai; 2: FC Seoul; 3: Urawa; 4: Western Sydney
Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN), Suwon Bluewings (KOR), Kawasaki Frontale (JPN), Eastern SC (Hong Kong)
Another very tough section with two domestic champions (Guangzhou and Eastern) joined by the Korean FA Cup winners and the impressive J.League outfit, Kawasaki.
Most attention will be focused here on the historic achievement of a club from Hong Kong in featuring in the group stage and all the more so given that their manager, Chan Yuen-ting, is the first woman to have featured at this level in a club competition anywhere across the world.
Chan Yuen-ting will become the 1st woman to coach a men's team in continental competition on Wednesday: Eastern (HK) v Guangzhou Evergrande pic.twitter.com/CQ5JQ57Zmf
— Onefootball (@OnefootballEN) February 20, 2017
Despite the feel-good nature of the story and indeed their impressive domestic form both last season and this (they remain undefeated through 13 matches) this is likely to be a step too far against some of the biggest clubs in the region.
That task starts with the behemoth that is 2013 and 2015 champion Guangzhou and although the Chinese club has been, relatively-speaking, quiet in the transfer market they still retain a core of outstanding local talent supplemented by the talents of foreign stars Ricardo Goulart, Paulinho and Alan Carvalho.
Indeed, so strong are they that they could afford to cut Colombian star Jackson Martinez from their foreign quota and whilst the pressure will be on following a disappointing group stage exit last year they should progress from this group without too much bother.
Suwon had a disappointing domestic campaign last season, flirting with relegation for long stretches, but still managed to taste cup success and therefore earn an ACL spot and with Brazilian forward Johnathan impressing they will at least have a decent goal threat.
Captain Yeom Ki-hun remains a crucial midfield presence whilst the arrival of Australian defender Matthew Jurman adds some steel to their backline although they still appear likely to miss out on a spot in the knockout stages.
Kawasaki will fancy their chances of moving beyond the group stage though even if they are, in many ways, a new-look club.
Gone is the outstanding manager who helmed them for more than half a decade, Yahiro Kazama, with the club opting to promote from within by appointing his former assistant, Toru Oniki, to the top job.
Leading scorer for the past couple of seasons, Yoshito Okubo, has also departed with the club brining in a couple of exciting talents, headlined by Akihiro Ienaga, and they should be good enough to reach the second stage if the new manager continues their upbeat, attack-minded, approach of the last couple of seasons.
PREDICTION: 1: Guangzhou, 2: Kawasaki, 3: Suwon, 4: Eastern
Adelaide United (AUS); Jiangsu Suning (CHN); Jeju United (KOR), Gamba Osaka (JPN)
Adelaide may be the only domestic champion in the final section but this only helps to add to the likely competitive nature of the group.
Since the success of last season though where they claimed both the Premiership and the Championship, the Australian club has fallen completely off a cliff, having only won 3 of their 20 league matches to sit rock bottom of the standings.
Whilst it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to turn things around in Asia, the club has spoken of this tournament now being their focus and we have seen in the past A-League clubs respond (the Wanderers in 2013 being the primary example) when placed in this kind of situation.
Jiangsu, after finishing second in the CSL last season, trod a similar path to Guangzhou in looking to retain and refine their expensively assembled side rather than throwing more cash about and they have the look of a balanced squad who should be highly competitive.
Jeju will fancy their chances.
Interestingly, with Choi Yong-soo at the helm, it means that there will be two Korean managers in the group with Jeju’s Koo Ja-young no doubt also fancying his team’s chances of reaching the knockout stage.
Probably the most entertaining side domestically last season, Jeju scored a league-high 60 goals whilst conceding 50 – a mark that was ‘bettered’ by only three clubs and they’ll need to strike a better balance between attack and defence to ensure they reach the final 16.
The section is rounded out by Gamba Osaka, one of the more consistent Japanese clubs who have a clearly defined style that suits the ACL moreso perhaps than that of their fellow J.League sides.
Veteran Yasuhito Endo is still pulling the strings and whilst they have a solid squad, the lack of a ‘pure’ goalscorer (with Brazilian Ademilson never really convincing in the role) may hurt them further down the track – they should still be good enough though to progress from this group.
PREDICTION: 1: Gamba, Jiangsu, Jeju, Adelaide
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