It hasn’t been too long since the end of the 2010 Asian Champions League – the final was in mid-November and already the group stages of the 2011 competition are ready to go. Last year’s winners were South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma who defeated Iranian side Zob Ahan 3-1. With the goals from the Australian international Sasa Ognenovski, defender Cho-Byung Kuk and Kim Cheol-Ho who recently left the club to join Sanju Sangmu. The consolation came from Mohammed Reza Khalatbari. The K-League side raised the Champions League at the National Olympic Stadium in front of nearly 30,000 fans.
Asia has been rapidly improving as a continent in football although still trails Europe and South America and this year the AFC are hoping to make the competition even more successful. This year there will be a minor tweak to the final as there will be no more neutral venue. Instead teams draw for which team gets to host the final a decision that has its critics.
As well as that, there will definitely be no retaining champion this year. Last year’s champions failed to qualify finishing the year 5th in the K-League with FC Seoul the new champions of the Republic of Korea. For those who wish to watch this year’s AFC Champions League it begins March 1st at 19:25 local time in Abu Dhabi and here are the teams and players to watch out for. Firstly, the group stages are divided into two; there are West Asia and East Asia. West Asia has groups A-D and East Asia has groups E-H, making travel for teams in the early stages much easier.
First Block: West Asia
Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia, Group A)
By some margin the International Federation of Football History & Statistics gave Al-Hilal the title of “Asia’s Club of the 20th Century”, a title to be proud of. 2010’s Saudi Premier League champions were defeated by Zob Ahan in the semi-finals last year and Gabriel Calderon’s side will be hoping to go further this year and reach the final. Al-Hilal are also previous winners of the competition too, lifting the trophy in 1992 and 2000. That is not their only glory on the continent they won the now-defunct Asian Cup Winners Cup in 1997 and in the final game of the competition in 2002. They also picked up the Asian Super Cup in 1997 2000. They’ve a successful club well versed to winning trophies.
Player to watch: Yasser Al-Qahtani. “The Sniper” has a fantastic goal scoring record that would make many of the world’s elite green with envy with 105 goals in 155 games at club level and 44 goals in 87 games for his country. Al-Qahtani has captained Saudi Arabia at international level in the Gold Cup and is currently the captain for his club too.
Famously he once had a trail at Manchester City in 2007 shortly after their recent take over which led them to be the richest club in the world, an agreement couldn’t be reached between both parties and Al-Qahtani returned to Saudi Arabia.
You might recognise: Lee Young-Pyo (PSV, Spurs, and Dortmund), Mirel Radoi (Steaua Bucharest), or Christian Wilhelmsson (Nantes, Roma, Bolton Wanderers, Deportivo La Coruna).
Al-Gharafa (Qatar, Group A)
Last year’s quarter final defeat to Al-Hilal could be avenged in the group stages this year for Al-Gharafa. The serial Qatari League winners only advanced out of the group stages of the Asian Champions League last year and defeated Uzbek club Pakhtakor on the way before their match against Al-Hilal. The two legs ended in extra time with Al-Hilal winning the home leg 3-0 it seemed they were coasting into the semi-finals but Al-Gharafa weren’t prepared to give up so soon and remarkably won the return leg 3-0 at home taking the game into extra time. Two minutes into the first half of extra time they took the lead and looked like they could make it into the semi-finals until that man, Yasser Al-Qahtani scored to equalise in the 117th minute before Essa Al-Mehyani finished it off in the 119th minute to break Qatari hearts.
Player to watch: Younis Mahmoud. The Iraqi captain was brilliant as the 2007 Asia Cup in which he was the tournament’s MVP as well as joint-top scorer. The striker scored the winner in the final against Saudi Arabia and is by far one of Iraq’s greatest ever players receiving recognition from FIFA (a ballon d’or nominee), La Gazzetta dello Sport (Giacinto Fachetti award winner) and racking up awards and recognitions all over the continent.
You might recognise: Juninho Pernambucano (Vasco da Gama, Lyon), or Amara Diane (Strasbourg, PSG).
Al-Nassr (Saudi Arabia, Group B)
Riyadh’s Al-Nassr were almost relegated from the Saudi Premier League in 2007 but have managed to steadily improve since then and are making their debut appearance in the Asian Champions League. They will be considered outsiders to make it further into the tournament but are likely to progress through the group stages. They have had success on the continent before winning the Asian Cup Winners Cup and Asian Super Cup in 1998. Their best years were undoubtedly in the mid 90s and the mid 80s in which they achieved the most success domestically. The club maybe remembered by Leeds United fans as the club Don Revie would later go on to manage.
Player to watch: Ibrahim Ghaleb. Defensive Midfielder Ghaleb is only 19 years old but has already made his international debut for the Saudi Arabia senior side against Tunisia although he did miss out on the Asian Cup squad. In spite of his young age he has already appeared 44 times for Al-Nassr and his widely tipped to have a bright future ahead of him.
You might recognise: Ovidiu Petre (Galatasaray, Steaua Bucharest), or Jonathan McKain (Wellington Phoenix)
Al-Sadd (Qatar, Group B)
In last year’s Asian Champions League Al-Sadd narrowly missed out progressing through the group stage finishing one point behind Mes Kerman. Despite that though Al-Sadd (or Sadd Sports Club as they are also known by) have been almost ever-present in the Champions League. They have appeared in every year except one since 2003, with that gap year being 2009. Al-Sadd had to qualify for this year’s competition via qualifying play-offs and they did so well defeating Iraq’s Al-Ittihad 5-1 and India’s Dempo SC 2-0 to reach the group stages yet again.
Player to Watch: Wesam Rizik. The Kuwait born midfielder has recently started his second stint with Al-Sadd after joining Al-Khor for a single season. Rizik has represented Quatar 73 times so far in his career including playing every single minute of the 2011 Asian Cup. Wesam Rizik will be looking to help Al-Sadd battle into the knockout stages.
You might recognise: Kader Keita (Lillem Lyon), or Lee Jung-Soo (Kashima Antlers)
Ittihad (Saudi Arabia, Group C)
Yet another club from Saudi Arabia in the group stages of the Champions League. Al-Ittihad are currently coached by former the Benfica midfielder (and manager), Toni. Toni is a vastly experienced in management having first become Benfica manager in 1987 and served 3 stints at the club leading them to Liga glory twice. His Benfica influence in the club has passed on in the players too, having two ex-Benfica players Nuno Assis and Paulo Jorge in the squad.
Ittihad are the most recent club to have been Champions League winners for two seasons in a row winning the competition in 2004 and 2005 and a certainly very experienced at this level now for two decades.
Player to Watch: Mohammed Noor. Saudi Arabia fans will remember Noor for some time, but even more so by fans of Ittihad. Noor has been a one-club man up until now since he turned professional in 1996. Many consider Mohammed Noor to be one of the finest Asian midfielders to ever play the game. Indeed, he has won many trophies and personal awards including the Golden Shoe at the FIFA Club World Cup in 2005. In that competition, Noor and Ittihad lost out to another one-club man; Sao Paulo’s goal-scoring goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni scored the winning goal via a penalty.
You might recognise: Nuno Assis (Benfica, Vitoria Giuimaraes), or Paulo Jorge (Benfica, Malaga)
Bunyodkor (Uzbekistan, Group C)
There’s one thing that is for certain and that it’s Bunyodkor are not short of cash. This is point is perfectly illustrated when famously they signed Brazil legend Rivaldo from AEK Athens on a contract that was allegedly $14,000,000 for two years. Indeed the team were a blast from a past at times last year when they fielded both Rivaldo and Denilson.
Yet, Bunyodkor for all their money will be disappointed that they have not had more success in the Asian Champions League. Their best in the competition so far is in 2008 when they reached the semi-finals before losing to eventual runners up Adelaide United. They were also unfortunate to lose in extra time in 2009 to eventual winners Pohang Steelers.
Player to Watch: Viktor Karpenko. For a midfielder, Karpenko’s goal scoring record isn’t too shabby at all. The long-ranger shooter scored 14 in 31 league games for Russian side Lokomotiv Chita in 2002. At his previous club, Kairat Almaty he bagged 11 in 39 games. Someone like that is always a potential threat for opposition defences.
You might recognise: Slavojub Dordevic (Red Star Belgrade)
Zob Ahan (Iran, Group D)
Ahan were last year’s surprise package in the Champions League and the defeated finalists. From the Iranian city of Isfahan, the club have finished runners up behind Sepahan Esfahan in the league last season. The credit mostly goes to the coach, Mansour Ebrahimzadeh. Zob Ahan is Mansour’s first time in the spotlight as head coach of a team, although he did have a temporary stint as the caretaker manager for the Iraqi national team in 2008.
It will be interesting to see how far they can go this year as the team itself is not close to the most talented but makes up for that fact by excellent team play and work rate. Some of the Ahan players were only able to get into the national team on the back of the excellent Champions League performances.
Player to watch: Mohammadreza Khalatari. FC Koln were interested in the attack midfielder’s services in 2009 but failed to make an agreement to acquire him. Since then he become a star for Zob Ahan finishing last season with the joint-top assists in the Iran Pro League. Khalatari also recently got his debut goal at international level as Iraq were surprise winners against Russia in a friendly, which they won 1-0.
You might recognise: Igor Castro (Brasiliense)
Second Block: East Asia
Gamba Osaka (Japan, Group E)
The 2008 Asian Champions League winners are certainly no stranger to winning trophies. Since coach Akira Nishino took over in 2002, Gamba Osaka have been there or thereabouts for major trophies since. They have won the Emperor’s Cup twice, the J-League Cup and the Super Cup since 2007. The only think they have been missing is the J-League itself, finishing runners up this year. Japanese clubs are historically successful in the Champions League and Gamba Osaka does have a great chance. Eventual winners Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma were the ones to knock out Gamba Osaka in last year’s competition in the round of 16.
Player to watch: Yasuhito Endo. Anyone who has watched Japan’s national team and some point since 2003 will have no doubt seen Yasuhito Endo in the thick of things for Japan’s midfield, by far one of their most experienced players having picked up 103 caps at international level whilst still having only just turned 31. Endo’s not far from his 400th game for his club and is a leader for his side.
You might recognise: Adriano (Internacional)
Melbourne Victory (Australia, Group E)
Ernie Merrck’s side have been one of the best in the A-League since 2006 and have won all there is to win domestically in a short time. Their impact in the Asian Champions League so far has been marginal, as they have yet to navigate their way past the group stages. It will be tough for them again as Group E is not the easiest. So far none of the Australian clubs have managed to take the final step and lift the trophy but Merrick himself has outlined that domestic glory is still his priority.
Player to watch: Archie Thompson. Many may remember Archie Thompson after he broke records scoring 13 goals against American Samoa – so he certainly knows how to find the back of the net. For Victory, he is quite literally their marquee player and was unfortunate to tear his knee ligaments last year meaning he meant the entire 2010 Champions League.
You might recognise: Kevin Muscat (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Rangers, Millwall), Grant Brebner (Reading, Hibernian, Dundee United), or Michael Petkovic (Strasbourg, Lillestrom, Trabonspor)
FC Seoul (South Korea, Group F)
2010 was certainly a brilliant year for fans of FC Seoul as they won a domestic double of the K-League and the K-League Cup. Portuguese coach Nelo Vingada was certainly no stranger to football in Asia and can look at his winner’s medals from such competitions as the Asian Cup as evidence of that. The only tar on the seal for Seoul will be their inability to retain Vingada for another season, the club could not match his wage demands and he left. Seoul has since brought in Hwangbo Kwan as their new head coach.
FC Seoul has yet to win the Asian Champions League but have reached the final stage before. In 2002 they faced fellow K-League team Suwon Samsung Bluewings are lost on penalties.
Player to watch: Dejan Damjanovic. The forward has played 7 times for his native country, Montenegro and has had a great record since his arrival in the Republic of Korea. First he bagged 14 in 26 for Incheon United and is currently standing on 43 in 80 league games for FC Seoul.
You might recognise: Adilson (Red Star Belgrade), Kim Dong-Jin (Zenit St. Petersburg) or Mauricio Molina (San Lorenzo, Red Star Belgrade)
Nagoya Grampus (Japan, Group F)
Dragan Stojkovic spent 8 years in Japan (playing for what was then known as Grampus Eight) after he left Olympic Marseille. Stojkovic must have enjoyed his time in Nagoya as he returned to the club in 2008 to take over the helm. Last season he managed to lead the team to J-League glory for the first time in their history and it’s no surprise – for those who go to type in his name in Youtube – that goals come easy when even your manager is able to score from the dug out.
Grampus are hot favourites for the competition and this is their first appearance since being defeated in the semi-finals in 2009. The embarrassing aggregate score line finished 8-3, mostly in part to a disastrous first leg in which they lost 6-2 to Al-Ittihad in Jeddah.
Player to Watch: Tulio Tanaka. It’s not hard to recognise Marcus “Tulio” Tanaka when he’s playing, the tall longhaired centre back has been a towering presence in the J-League as well as a goal threat. His goals record for a defender is excellent, currently sitting at 60 goals. The Brazilian born defender has represented his country in the Olympics, the Asian Cup and the World Cup.
You may recognise: Igor Burzanovic (Red Star Belgrade), Joshua Kennedy (Wolfsburg, FC Koln), or Alessandro Santos / Alex (Red Bull Salzburg)
Cerezo Osaka (Japan, Group G)
In 2009, Cerezo Osaka were still in the J-League 2, now only two years later they are competing in the Champions League. It’s been an incredible turn around for the team after their relegation in 2006. It’s manager Levir Cupli’s second stint in charge of Cerezo after a brief run in 1997. The club has yet to win any titles of note since Japan’s football reconstruction of the J-League in 1995. This, regardless of result, will be an excellent experience for Cerezo’s players to taste continental football and progress even further.
Player to watch: Ryuji Bando. Unlike many of his teammates, the Japanese international Bando is no stranger to the Asian Champions League. When playing for city rivals Gamba Osaka in 2008 he was part of the winning squad as well as picking up 4 other trophies in his time at the club. Now it’ll be extra incentive for him to see if he can do it again with Osaka’s other club.
You may recognise: Rodrigo Pimpao (Vasco de Gama), or Martinez (Cruzeiro, Palmeiras)
Shandong Luneng (China, Group G)
Since 2005, the “Big Scorers” Shandong Luneng have participated in the Asian Champions League 4 times, in 2005 they managed to get to the quarter finals but since then have failed to break through the groups. Fortunately for them though their domestic fortunes have been much better having lifted the Chinese Super League in 3 of the last 5 seasons.
Last year’s group stages especially were painful for Shandong. After an excellent 1-0 away win against Sanfrecce Hiroshima they then lost their next four matches and finished bottom of their group.
Player to watch: Han Peng. For a player born in Shandong and been at the club since 2002, Han Peng is the fans local hero. Peng has managed to find the net 96 times for his club so far and has scored at least 12 goals a season since 2005. The only exception of that was in 2008, when injuries reduced him to only 10 league appearances for the club, but he still managed 8 goals for the club, an excellent scoring ratio. Last year, Peng got a career high of 19 goals for the season.
You may recognise: Renato Silva (Flamengo, Fluminense, Sao Paulo), Obina (Flamengo, Palmeiras, Atletico Mineiro), Roda Antar (Hamburger SV, Freiburg, FC Koln), Mourtala Diakite (Boavista, Dinamo Bucharest), or Julio Cesar de Leon (Reggina, Genoa, Parma)
Suwon Samsung Bluewings (South Korea, Group H)
Despite their indifferent domestic record in the K-League recently, the Bluewings are never far from success. They qualified for this year’s Champions League after defeating Busan l’Park 1-0 in the Korean FA Cup final but will be disappointed with finishing 7th in the league. The Bluewings too, have an excellent record in continental competition; they won the Asian Champions League twice in a row in 2001 and 2002. They also have won the Asian Cup Winners Cup and the Asian Super Cup. Success can be a habit for teams and they will be hoping to continue that habit this year.
Player to watch: Jung Sung-Ryong. The goalkeeper has succeeded long time Bluebird’s and South Korea’s national team goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae. Jae has gone on to Chunnam Dragons but Sung-Ryong is continuing his form back in Suwon. He has experience too of winning the Asian Champions League too, only last year with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in which he played every minute of their successful campaign. He has once scored for his country too, at international level for the U23s against Ivory Coast U23s. Whilst taking a regular long kick down the field for the team mate the opposition goalkeeper was fooled by the bounce Sung-Ryong scored probably his only ever goal in football.
You may recognise: Bergson (Gremio)
Kashima Antlers (Japan, Group H)
Although Nagoya Grampus may be the current J-League champions, there’s no argument who the most successful domestic side in Japan is. The Antlers have won 7 J-League titles, 4 Emperor’s Cups, 3 J-League Cups, and 5 Super Cups. It will then serve as a great annoyance to the club that they have yet to replicate their winning ways on the biggest stage in Asia. The best they have managed in the Champions League is reaching the quarterfinals, which they did so in 2008, but were knocked out by Adelaide United. The
Player to watch: Mitsuo Ogasawara. If you don’t count loans then Ogasawara is a one club man for Kashima Antlers. The midfielder has been a part of their J-League success since his debut for the club in 1998. Since then he has gone on to represent his country 55 times, and won the Asian Cup 2004 with them. It’s in the J-League too he has achieved personal success, in 2009 he was voted the J-League’s MVP player as well as Japanese Player of the Year. He has also featured in 6 different J-League Best Elevens. There’s no doubt Ogasawara’s dead ball delivery is a huge part of the Antlers success.
You may recognise: Fellype Gabriel (Flamengo), Carlao (UD Leiria), or Koji Nakata (Olympic Marseille, Basel)