China eyes top Asian prize

With the Asian Champions League about to kick off, China's cashed up Guangzhou Evergrande aim for glory.

    Former Fluminense player Dario Conca joined China's Guangzhou Evergrande in a deal reportedly making him one of the highest paid players in the world [EPA]

    China's cashed up football clubs are ready to end a 22-year drought in the Asian Champions League starting on Tuesday.

    These days China's domestic teams are among the richest in the world, and of the 32 teams from all corners of the Asian Football Confederation, all eyes will be on Guangzhou Evergrande.

    For wealthy Guangzhou, the $4 million or so prize money for lifting the Champions League trophy is perhaps less valuable than the continental-wide publicity and the opportunity to appear with the best in the world in December at the FIFA Club World Cup.

    It would also be a massive boost for Chinese football after the national team's recent elimination from qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

    Compared to South Korea's nine Champions League wins and Japan's five, Liaoning are the only Chinese club to lift the trophy back in 1990. Guangzhou are aiming to end that run.

    Money talks

    In 2011, Guangzhou kicked off the new era in China by embarking on a massive spending spree that helped the team win the domestic title for the first time by a margin of 15 points.

    "We are looking forward to the challenge of playing against the best teams in Asia. It's going to be great experience for us,'' Guangzhou coach Lee Jang-soo told newsagency AP.

    Guangzhou have been placed in a tough group alongside Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol, South Korean champions Jeonbuk Motors and Thailand's Buriram United.

    Jeonbuk were champions in 2006 and runner-up in 2011, and open the group stage against Guangzhou on Wednesday.

    "Teams like Jeonbuk know all about playing in this tournament,'' Lee said.

    "We will have to be at our best to progress to the next round. This is a tough group and we have a really tough fixture to start.''

    Guangzhou's big-money signings such as Argentine midfielder Dario Conca - reportedly one of the highest-paid players in the world - and Brazil's Cleo will help, as will its list of Chinese internationals.

    Unfortunately for organisers, Shanghai Shenhua with star striker Nicolas Anelka did not qualify for the competition, but Beijing Guoan and Tianjin Teda are also looking to go far in the tournament - that was until Al Sadd of Qatar won the 2011 version, dominated in recent years by clubs from Japan and South Korea.

    East v West

    The eight groups of four, from which the top two progress to the knockout stage, are divided into two regions. The first four groups consist of teams from the western reaches of the continent while the other half sees East Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia in action.

    Central Asia, in the shape of Uzbekistan, has a team in each half. The two regions start mixing at the quarter-final stage.

    Last year's winners Al Sadd failed to qualify for the tournament this year [REUTERS]

    South Korean teams, with nine wins in total, have been the most successful in the Champions League and have sent a total of seven teams to the quarterfinals of the last two tournaments.

    This year, however, changes in the K-League calendar that mean clubs will face a domestic season of 44 games put Korean clubs at a major disadvantage.

    Despite that, Pohang Steelers, Seongnam Ilhwa and Jeonbuk have all won the tournament in the last six years and have extensive experience. Ulsan Horangi is the other K-League candidate.

    Japanese teams struggled in the 2011 edition and may find 2012 almost as tough.

    Kashiwa are ready for their first appearance, but have been placed in a tough group, 2008 winner Gamba Osaka have been weakened by player departures and FC Tokyo were a second division team last season. Nagoya Grampus could be the major challenger from the J-League.

    For the first time, Australia has three entrants with A-League champion Brisbane Roar seen as the best hope of success.

    A-League clubs have struggled to make an impact in the tournament since entering in 2007. Adelaide United has been the one exception and made the final in 2008.

    "The Adelaide fans love and support the Asian Champions League and we pride ourselves on our profile in Asia, and this is due to past strong performances,'' Adelaide chairman Greg Griffin said.

    "Central Coast Mariners and Brisbane Roar have to juggle A-League finals matches, but we are free to focus entirely on this tournament. Adelaide is treating the competition as a potential saviour to a disappointing season.''

    Reigning champions Al Sadd failed to qualify for the 2012 edition and are absent from the western half of the draw. Two-time champion Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia are always regarded as a potential winner, as are domestic rivals Al Hilal.

    Iranian team Sepahan made the final in 2007 and are back in the tournament, along with Tehran giants Piroozi and Esteghlal.

    From Qatar and UAE, Al Gharafa and Al Jazira will be carrying the hopes of fans.



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