The 6 questions from the AFC Champions League group stage

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

With the AFC Champions League group stage done and dusted, FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks at the six big talking points ahead of next month’s Round of 16.

1) Has the changing of the guard been completed in China?

It has been a long time coming now but, where Andre Villas-Boas failed, his successor Vitor Pereira looks to be on track to succeeding.

Even with the introduction of world-famous names like Hulk and Oscar, SIPG failed to wrest the mantle of the Chinese Super League’s number one team from Guangzhou Evergrande in 2017.

This year, however, Pereira has transformed them from top-class individuals to a genuine quality team, and they have already opened up a five-point gap at the Super League summit after just six games.

There is no doubt over how good SIPG’s starting XI is although question marks remain over their depth and should any injuries strike, the likes of Lu Wenjun and Lin Chuangyi will have a huge task to replace players of Wu Lei and Odil Ahmedov’s ilk.

Yet, if all goes according to plan, there looks to be nothing stopping SIPG from overtaking Evergrande this year, both on the domestic and the continental front.

2) Can Al Ain survive without Amoory at his best?

For the past few years, Omar Abdulrahman has been one of Asia’s biggest stars but he has not exactly been at his influential best in the last six months.

Al Ain had to firstly negotiate their way through the qualifying playoffs, and then needed a final-day win over Al Rayyan to secure second spot in an admittedly tricky Group D.

In that match, Omar – affectionately known as ‘Amoory’ – showed glimpses of rediscovering his top form, netting his side’s second with a sublime freekick and causing the opposition defence all sorts of problems.

When the United Arab Emirates international was quiet in the earlier rounds, it was the likes of Marcus Berg and Caio who stepped up to the task, while Rayan Yaslam and Hussein El Shahat also displayed plenty of promise.

Should Omar return to his usual levels of creativity and guile in the attacking third, it could just make Al Ain genuine contenders this season.

3) Do the Iranian clubs really mean business this year?

For the second season in a row, Iran have three representatives in the Round of 16 but it is worth remembering that – last year – just one of them managed to reach the last eight.

So, will the teams from Asia’s highest-placed nation in the FIFA world rankings fare any better in 2018?

If their displays in the group stage are anything to go by, the contenders from the Persian Gulf Pro League mean business this year, although two of them – Esteghlal and Zob Ahan – will come up against one another.

Iran’s third representatives Persepolis reached the semis last year and are arguably the strongest of the trio on paper.

There is a feeling that Persepolis can still take their game up another level and they have every reason to be confident of defeating Al Jazira and securing two berths in the quarters for Iran.

4) Where did it go wrong with J.League’s giants?

With six former champions hailing from the J.League, Japan is the second-most successful nation in ACL history behind only Korea Republic.

So, for just one of this year’s four representatives to reach the Round of 16 is a poor result for one of Asia’s proudest footballing nations.

Yet, it appears that the Japanese clubs just were not that serious about the continent’s premier club competition and many have attributed that to the fact that the prize money for winning the J1 League is far more lucrative than that of the Champions League.

At the end of the day, clubs have every right to prioritise competitions as they see fit, but it was a shame to see the likes of Cerezo Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale fielding completely reserve sides in games where they would have easily stood a chance had the first XI been out on the field.

As a result, it is down to Kashima Antlers to fly the flag for Japan in the knockout round and, with quality players like Gen Shoji, Yuma Suzuki and Kento Misao, they could have still caused quite an impact if not for the fact that their next opponents are Shanghai SIPG.

5) Just how good are history-making Al Duhail?

If you are wondering why you haven’t exactly heard of Al Duhail before, fret not. After all, it was only last year that they emerged as a rebranding of Lekhwiya coupled with a merger with El Jaish.

Since then, Duhail have gone on to become only the fourth club in the history of the Champions League to win all six matches in the group stage.

In foreign trio Youssef El-Arabi, Youssef Msakni and Nam Tae-hee, the Doha-based outfit have no shortage of firepower and plenty of experience too, with the likes of Qatar internationals Karim Boudiaf and Ismaeel Mohammad to call upon.

Furthermore, manager Djamel Belmadi has not been afraid to put his faith in youth and with starlets like Almoez Ali and Bassam Al-Rawi impressing, the future looks exceedingly bright for the “new” giants of Qatari football.

6) How much further can Buriram United go?

In 2017, it was Muangthong United who made a real stir by reaching the knockout round and, this year, their Thai League 1 rivals did not disappoint.

Their two victories may have come up against an understrength Cerezo and a Jeju United outfit who had already been eliminated, but the more accurate reflection of Buriram United’s ability came in two 1-1 draws against a full-strength Guangzhou Evergrande.

Similar to SIPG, Buriram’s squad looks a little thin and it remains to be seen if they have real options off the bench.

But, as a team working for one another and playing their role, few are better than the Thunder Castle.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors certainly head into their Round of 16 clash as favourites, but they should underestimate their Thai opponents at their own peril.

After all, it was only five years ago when Buriram overcame the odds to see off Bunyodkor at the same stage before succumbing to Esteghlal in the quarters.