FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan picks the top eight performers from Match Day 1 of AFC Champions League 2020.
Three months on from when Al Hilal were crowned champions of Asia, the new AFC Champions League campaign got underway this week and it certainly began with a bang.
A total of 33 goals flew in across 12 games, with the likes of Sepahan and Vissel Kobe recording convincing victories.
West Asian giants Al Hilal and Al Duhail, as well as Melbourne Victory and Yokohama F. Marinos in the East, also got their campaigns of to a winning start and there was no shortage of individuals who shone.
Here, FOX Sports Asia looks at “The Top 8” from Match Day 1 of AFC Champions League 2020.
1) DRAGAN CERAN (PAKHTAKOR)
Pakhtakor got their campaign off to a winning start as they beat Shabab Al Ahli 2-1 on Monday and, on a night when torrid conditions in Tashkent made it near impossible to play pretty football, Dragan Ceran was one of a few whose quality shone through.
In spite of the waterlogged pitch, the Serb somehow managed to make the ball do his bidding and it should hardly surprise that it was him who popped up with a 70th-minute winner, meeting Dostonbek Khamdamov’s right-wing cross with a clinical first-time finish.
2) SALMAN AL-FARAJ (AL HILAL)
While Andre Carrillo and Bafetimbi Gomis got the goals that fuelled an Al Hilal win, it was Salman Al-Faraj who emerged as their most pivotal player on the evening.
Highlights – Al Hilal vs Shahr Khodro
The 30-year-old seems to get better with age and dictated proceedings with his composure and skill on the ball, whether it was by dropping deep to receive possession from his centre-backs or popping up on the edge of the opposition area.
3) YASSER AL-MOSAILEM (AL AHLI)
Al Ahli opened their ACL 2020 campaign with a 1-1 draw at Al Wahda but, were it not for the heroics of Yasser Al-Mosailem, they might have been on the receiving end of an emphatic defeat.
The veteran goalkeeper made a smart save at his near post to keep out a low drive from Sebastian Tagliabue in the first half and then made a crucial stop with his feet to deny an unmarked Ismail Matar from seven yards out in the 71st minute, and there was ultimately little he could to prevent a relentless Al Wahda outfit from grabbing a 90th-minute equaliser from Rim Chang-woo.
4) BILL (CHIANGRAI UNITED)
Chiangrai United’s ACL debut may have ended in a 1-0 defeat to Victory, but the Thai League 1 champions were far from outclassed and offered their opponents plenty of resistance.
Highlights – Melbourne Victory vs Chiangrai United
While goalkeeper Apirak Woravong caught the eye with a series of fine saves, Brazilian striker Bill was arguably Chiangrai’s standout player with a tireless display up front as he often took on several opponents at once and gave the Victory defence plenty to worry about.
5) SAEID AGHAEI (SEPAHAN)
It is not often that a left-back dons the No. 7 jersey but Saeid Aghaei proved to be a worthy wearer with an outstanding display as Sepahan beat Al Ain 4-0.
He created Mohammed Mohebi’s headed opener in the 38th minute with an inch-perfect cross before proving another assist with a piece of play that summed up his performance, as he slid in to make an interception in his own half before charging forward in support and playing a clever cutback that was dispatched into the far corner by Soroush Rafiei.
6) HAN KWANG-SONG (AL DUHAIL)
More than a few eyebrows were raised last September when Juventus signed DPR Korea international Han Kwang-song from Cagliari, and several more ensued when he then moved to Al Duhail only four months later.
Nonetheless, his experience playing in Italy – including five Serie A appearances for Cagliari – came through in Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Persepolis, where he often dropped deep to receive possession and held up the ball well before bringing his team-mates into play while also linking up well with fellow new signing Mario Mandzukic.
7) ANDRES INIESTA (VISSEL KOBE)
Keijiro Ogawa may have been Vissel Kobe’s hat-trick hero in their 5-1 rout of Johor Darul Ta’zim, but few would argue against Andres Iniesta being the most influential player on the night.
Highlights – Vissel Kobe vs Johor Darul Ta’zim
The legendary Spaniard produced two glorious assists for Ogawa’s first and third goals, and his overall presence in the middle of the park really allowed Vissel to dominate proceedings for the entire 90 minutes.
8) KEITA ENDO (YOKOHAMA F. MARINOS)
Keita Endo may have had a tournament to forget at last month’s AFC U23 Championship as Japan suffered an embarrassing group-stage exit, although the Yokohama F. Marinos man looks to have put that firmly behind him.
The 22-year-old opened the scoring in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors with a clinical finish, before an enterprising run on the counter down the left forced Kim Jin-su to put the ball into his own goal for what proved to be the winning strike.