2016 AFC Champions' League Group Stage Preview
The AFC Champions’ League gets underway later this month with defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande looking to pick up their third title in four years. Their Chinese rivals Shanghai SIPG and Jiangsu Suning have strengthened over the winter, and will be hoping for some reward for their spending on the continental stage. Many other clubs have strengthened their squads; with UAE side Al Ain looking very strong in the western half of the draw, and Korean champion’s Jeonbuk Motors having the strength in depth to go far in the Eastern side of the draw.
Iranian champions Sepahan are top seeds in group A; the side from Esfahan won the Persian Gulf League by a single point last season, but after a bright start to this season, the club have been on a terrible run of form and are currently in mid-table. They are joined in group A by UAE side Al Nasr, who qualified for the competition as the domestic cup winners. Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad reached the final of this competition several times over the last decade, the most recent of which was in 2009 when they lost 2-1 to Pohang Steelers. They qualified for this year’s competition by beating Jordanian side Al-Wehdat, who grew from their foundation in a Palestinian refugee camp to become one of the country’s top clubs, in the play-offs. Al-Ittihad’s Venezuelan forward Gelmin Rivas is currently leading the Saudi Pro League scoring charts with fifteen goals in as many games. Uzbek League runners-up Lokomotiv Tashkent, who recently signed former Asian Footballer of the Year Server Djeperov from Ulsan Hyundai, are the final team in group A.
Uzbek side Bunyodkor booked their place in Group A with a 2-0 win over UAE side El Shabab in the play-offs. The Tashkent club made waves in the past when they signed Brazilian world cup winner Rivaldo. They were also managed by Felipe Luis Scolari for a time. Those heady days are behind them and their team nowadays barely features any Uzbeki national stars, let alone Brazilians. Last season’s AFC Champions’ League quarter-finalists Lekhwiya have a few more recognizable names in their squad, including former Swansea City defender Chico Flores and South Korean international Nam Tae-Hee. Saudi champions Al-Nassr, who recently sacked former manager Fabio Cannavaro, and Iranian side Zob Ahan are also in group B. Zob Ahan reached the final in 2010 but lost out to Korean side Seongnam Ilwha Chunma.
Uzbek champions Pakhtakor Tashkent are top-seeds for group C, young forward Igor Sergeev who despite being just 22, was top scorer in the Uzbek league last season. Already well-integrated in the national team set-up, he is the stand-out player in Pakhtakor’s side. Saudi side Al-Hilal will be looking to go one better then in 2014 when they reached the AFC Champions’ League final, losing 1-0 on aggregate to Western Sydney Wanderers. Tractor Sazi finished in second place in the Persian Gulf League last season, although they are quite a way off the mark so far in this season’s campaign. UAE side Al-Jazira needed penalties to overcome Qatari side Al-Sadd in the qualification play-offs. Recent signing Kenwyne Jones, on loan from Cardiff City, scored in that match. Al-Jazira’s side also contains Korean international Park Jong-Woo who famously got himself in trouble for making political statements whilst celebrating Korea’s Olympic bronze medal win over Japan.
UAE champions Al Ain reached the first knockout round of last year’s Champions’ League. The side spent big to bring in Lee Myung-Joo from Pohang Steelers in 2014. Over the winter they also brought in Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s star player Douglas to boost their forward line. Uzbek side Nashaf Qarshi were unlucky not to get past the group stage of last year’s competition, finishing third in their group on goals scored. Key for them last season was Turkmenistan international Artur Gevorkyan. Saudi side Al-Ahli reached the final of this competition in 2012. Last season they could only get as far as the first knockout round before being knocked out by Naft Tehran. Qatari side El Jaish round off group D after they knocked out Naft Tehran themselves in the playoffs. Tehran’s exit, along with the failure of Estehglal and Persepolis to qualify means that the Iranian capital has no representatives in this season’s Champions’ League.
After being knocked out by a last Gamba Osaka goal in last year’s quarter-finals, Korean champions Jeonbuk Motors have brought in a huge number of players in order to challenge for this year’s AFC Champions’ League. Notable signings include former Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-Kyung, and Ulsan Hyundai target man Kim Shin-Wook. They are joined in group E by big spending Jiangsu Suning. The Chinese FA Cup winners made headlines around the world when they brought in Ramires from Chelsea and Brazilian international Alex Teixeira after their recent takeover. FC Tokyo made light work of their qualifying play-off, hammering Thai side Chonburi 9-0. They have strengthened their midfield by bringing in former FC Seoul captain Ha Dae-Sung from Beijing Guoan. The other side in group E is Vietnamese champions Becamex Binh Duong who managed four points in last year’s group stage.
Last year’s J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima lost their star forward Douglas in the winter transfer window as he moved to UAE side Al Ain. Young forward Takuma Asano, who made his international debut in last year’s East Asian Cup was voted last season’s rookie of the year and could be one of this season’s star players. FC Seoul strengthened their already impressive strike force by re-signing fan favourite Dejan Damjanovic. The Montenegro international hit sixteen goals for Beijing Guoan last season. Thai champions Buriram United reached the quarter finals in 2013. They acquired Brazilians Kaio and Andre Moritz over the winter, both of whom were disappointing during their spell in Korea and will be looking to resurrect their careers in Thailand this year. Shandong Luneng’s indiscipline nearly cost them a place in this year’s competition as they scraped past Adelaide United who missed a penalty in the qualifying playoff. Although they haven’t made as much noise as some of their domestic rivals in the transfer market, their team does contain Brazilian internationals Gil and Diego Tardelli.
In only his second season as a manager, Kevin Muscat managed to win the A-League with Melbourne Victory. The club have been in the Champions’ League before, but have never made it past the group stage. The task facing Muscat in this season’s competition looks particularly daunting. Japanese side Gamba Osaka reached last season’s semi-finals. They start this season in a new purpose-built stadium and will be looking to go at least as far this year as they did last time out. Gamba have strengthened their forward line, bringing in young Brazilian forward Ademilson from Yokohama to join Takeshi Usami in attack. Suwon Bluewings had a quiet transfer window compared to their rivals, but the Korean runners-up have plenty of talent. The stand-out man being midfielder Kwon Chang-Hoon, who at just 21 years of age, is destined for big things in the future. Rounding off group G is Chinese side Shanghai SIPG who came very close to pipping Guangzhou Evergrande to the CSL title last season. Their star players, Dario Conca, Elkeson, and Asamoah Gyan all have pedigree in the AFC Champions’ League, with Gyan scoring 12 goals for Al Ain in the 2014 competition.
2015 AFC Champions’ League winners Guangzhou Evergrande’s signing of Colombian international Jackson Martinez shows the ambition of the Chinese giants. They will be expecting to go all the way again this season, although a tougher domestic league could hinder their progress. A-League runners-up Sydney FC once won the OFC Champion’s League, but since joining the Asian federation, they have been unable to make it out of the group stages. To manage that feat this year they will have to get past Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds, who won the competition in 2007. Urawa have strengthened their defense by signing sought-after Japanese U-23 captain Waturu Endo this winter. Also in Sydney’s way are Korean side Pohang Steelers who convincingly beat Vietnamese side Hanoi T&T in the qualifying playoff, with Shim Dong-Woon scoring a hat-trick for the Korean side. Despite losing key player Kim Seung-Dae to Yanbian Fude in the winter window, Pohang’s side has plenty of talented players to look out for with midfielders Moon Chang-Jin and Son Joon-Ho in particular standing out.