Just two months have elapsed since Urawa Red Diamonds and Al Jazira represented Asia in last December’s FIFA Club World Cup, but the world’s biggest continent will begin their bid for this year’s global showpiece in the United Arab Emirates on Monday as the 2018 AFC Champions League kicks off. FIFA.com looks at the pre-tournament favourites across the 32-team field, potential surprises and more.
Like in the past editions, this year’s draw has produced a series of interesting match-ups. In east Asia, Melbourne Victory and Shanghai SIPG cross paths again while two-time winners Jeonbuk Motors have a score to settle with Kashiwa Reysol heading into their fifth meeting, having lost all four past encounters against the Japanese side. In the west, Iran’s Esteghlal are pitted against Riyadh giants Al Hilal in a tough group which also features Al Rayyan and Al Ain.
Players to watch
This year’s campaign is likely to see a host of established stars emulate previous feats. Indeed, Shanghai SIPG will look to the goalscoring knack of Brazilian import Hulk as they aim to improve on last year’s final-four performance. The brawny striker finished as the tournament’s second top-scorer with nine goals last season, single-handedly firing the team to victories on more than one occasion through his powerful strikes and aerial ability. The same can, of course, be said of last year’s top-scorer Omar Kharbin, who netted ten times as Al Hilal reached the final.
Elsewhere, the form of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman is the key if Al Ain are to win their second continental title. Brazilian Ricardo Goulart will be expected to reproduce his old form of three years ago when he finished top-scorer as ambitious Guangzhou Evergrande clinched their second Asian crown. Sydney FC, meanwhile, will be hoping their Polish star Adrian Mierzejewski can translate some of his brilliant domestic form to the Asian stage.
1 – Tianjin Quanjian might be the tournament’s only debutants but the Chinese Super League outfit boasts an all-star side. Under new boss Paulo Sousa and featuring the likes of Axel Witsel and Alexandre Pato, they secured their maiden appearance with a 2-0 play-off victory against Philippines’ Ceres–Negros with Frenchman Anthony Modeste scoring twice.
5 – The competition features five former winners this year in Al Sadd, Al Ain, Ulsan Hyundai, Jeonbuk Motors and Guangzhou Evergrande. Notably, the latter two are aiming to become the first team to win the tournament for a third time. However, defending champions Urawa will be absent.
24 – Six countries, namely China PR, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Qatar and United Arab Emirates each boast four teams in this year’s campaign, with their representatives accounting for two-thirds of the total participants.
What they said
“All three group opponents are very strong but we are very ambitious. We will invest all of our ambitions into beautiful, quality football. We want to go as far as possible in the Champions League and want to keep dreaming.” Lokomotiv Tashkent coach Andrey Miklyaev
“Our aim is to win the title – we want to become champions of Asia. We know it will not be an easy group and that we have to play to the best of our ability if we are to achieve our aim.” Kashiwa Reysol coach Takahiro Shimotaira