ACL group stages offer up great clashes

Barely 12 weeks since Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers reached global acclaim with a stunning title win over Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, the region’s elite club teams are already back competing for the $1.5 million dollar prize money.

Already a field over 47 qualifiers and potential champions has been whittled down to just 32 group stage teams, with no opening match more tantalising than Buriram United’s clash with Seongnam FC.

The Thai Champions are brimming with confidence on home soil after collecting their domestic Premier League trophy in 2014. The hosts have started their domestic campaign brightly with a 2-0 win and a spirited 1-1 away draw against Muang Thong United. Surprisingly, all three goals across the two games have been scored within fifteen minutes of half-time. 30 year old Brazilian forward Gilberton Macena scored both goals in their win, working cleverly in tandem with fellow Brazilian striker Diogo for countryman coach Alexandre Gama.

While Korean midfielder Seul-Ki Go will relish playing against the Korean FA Cup winners after previous stints with K-League sides Ulsan and Sangju Sangmu from 2009-2011. Despite them having lifted the AFC Champions League in 2010, Seongnam may be ripe for the picking as the Korean domestic season is still yet to commence. Those glory days seemed a very distant time ago during last year’s K-League season as they battled successfully to avoid relegation.

They earned the right to play amongst the continent’s ‘big boys’ in the AFC Champions League on the back of an FA Cup final win against FC Seoul in a dramatic penalty shoot-out win. They have experience on their side and typically leave it late to find a winner, but one fears this match might just have arrived a couple of weeks too early for them to be at their best. One thing is for almost certain however, a Brazilian should be amongst the goals with the Korean’s boasting Ricardo Bueno and Jorginho on their forward line.

In other Tuesday night matches, Jeonbuk Motors should see past Kashiwa comfortably as they embark on replicating their 2006 continental title with all eyes on ageing striker Lee Dong-gook (pictured) to supply the goals. Their opponents endured an extra-time qualification play-off win just last week and will be looking to Brazilian striker Leandro to find the net if they are to create a huge shock.

Gamba Osaka will be firm favourites against Guangzhou R & F from China after a stellar domestic season in 2014. The 2008 Champions of Asia will have studied the tapes of the Chinese Super League side’s 3-1 defeat of Australia’s Central Coast Mariners and will hope Moroccan striker Abderrazzaq Hamedallah can regain his 2014 form.

Shandong Luneng will announce their title credentials with a strong away win against Binh Duong who are minus two key defenders in Xuan Luan and Dinh Luat. The Vietnamese champions return for the first time since 2008 but victory for the Chinese FA Cup winners should put them on track to advance from the group stages for the first time in their most recent six attempts.

Pakhtakor should edge Qatar Stars League champions Naft Tehran just by virtue of home ground advantage with Coach Hamid Derakhshan calling for their vocal supporters to life his team despite an indifferent season to date.

The clash between Persepolis and Lekhwiya will go down to the wire, while last season’s semi finalist’s Al Ain should defeat Al-Shabab of Saudia Arabia in the UAE. The President’s Cup winners could fall into the danger of looking beyond this result, but should be packing too much firepower for a Saudi side that has already fallen twelve points behind their domestic leaders.

And in Tuesday’s final match Al-Nassr are widely expect to pick through Bunyodkor’s defensive lines and a couple of early goals could result in a blowout score-line.

By Adam Clifford