AFC Champions League to kick off

28 clubs begin the race for Asian club football's biggest prize.

    Archie Thompson is a key player for the
    Melbourne Victory [GALLO/GETTY]
    South Korea's Asian Champions League entrants both open their campaigns against Australian hopefuls as the region's premier club competition enters its sixth year.

    This year's tournament features 28 clubs from 14 nations, drawn into seven groups of four, although that format is likely to change in 2009 when the competition is revised and expanded.

    Only the winners of each group progress to September's quarterfinals, where they will be joined by defending champion Urawa Reds of Japan.

    With a guaranteed berth in the final eight, Urawa is a strong favorite to lift the crown again, but there will be a strong challenge from other Japanese clubs.

    The Kashima Antlers pipped Urawa to the domestic title last December and the five-time Japanese champions started the new J-League season last week with a 4-0 victory over Consadole Sapporo.

    Kashima is drawn with Beijing Guoan of China, Krung Thai Bank of Thailand and opening day opponents Vietnamese club Nam Dinh.

    Gamba Osaka is also looking for a first continental success.

    Osaka takes on in-form Chonburi FC of Thailand in Group G on Wednesday, while Melbourne Victory's first ever Asian match is against Chunnam Dragons of South Korea.

    Australians look to improve

    Australian teams struggled in 2007, their debut in Asia, and are hoping for a better showing second time round.

    "We're playing at home in front of a massive crowd of 40,000 so we definitely have to win at home and the boys are really pumped up for it,'' Melbourne defender Steve Pantelidis said ahead of his teams opening Champions League match.

    Chunnam coach Park Hang-seo is without three of his international stars for the game, but feels that his team is up to the encounter despite speculation that Australia coach Pim Verbeek, who formerly steered South Korea, is lending a hand to Melbourne's campaign.

    "As he is Australian coach, Verbeek could do that,'' Park said.

    "But do you think he knows Chunnam in detail?''

    Group E sees another Australia-South Korea matchup, with Adelaide United traveling to face the K-League title-winners and two-time Asian champions the Pohang Steelers.

    "Our goal is to qualify for the second round, and from our experience last year and not knowing too much about the teams and the competition, we fell a little bit short,'' Adelaide coach Aurelio Vidmar said.

    Urawa Reds recieve a bye to the quarterfinals
    as defending champions [AFP]
    West Asia

    In West Asia, Group A is the toughest with 2004 and 2005 champions Al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia vying for top spot with 2007 runners-up Sepahan of Iran.

    Al-Ittihad leads the table at home, but has looked less impressive in recent weeks and will look to ease into the tournament with an opening home game against Champions League rookies of PFC Kuruvchi of Uzbekistan.

    New Sepahan coach Jorvan Vieira is looking to add the Asian Champions League to the Asian Cup that he lifted with the Iraqi national team last summer.

    The Iranians take on Al-Ittihad of Syria in their opening match.

    Younis Mahmoud was the hero for Iraq last summer and the striker's Qatari club Al-Gharafa should be too strong for Iraqi newcomers Arbil.

    The other two members of Group D, Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan and Kuwait's Al Qadsia, both have a good deal of continental experience.

    Group C is tight. Qatar powerhouse Al-Sadd meets Saudi giants Al-Ahli in the opening match while 2006 runners-up, Syria's Al-Karama takes on 2007 semifinalists Al-Wahda of the United Arab Emirates.

    In Group B, recently appointed Iranian national team boss Ali Daei will combine his international role with leading club side Saipa in the tournament.

    Handily for the former Bayern Munich striker, the 2007 Iranian champions travel to face Al Kuwait, a team that contains seven Kuwaiti international stars.

    Iran faces Kuwait on March 26 in a 2010 World Cup qualifier.

    In Group B's other match, the UAE's Al-Wasl meets Iraqi team Al Juwa Al Jawiya.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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