Asian Champions League moves into a new decade

The Asian Champions League is clearly maturing as a competition
as it enters its second decade, with famous players, World
Cup-winning coaches and increasingly glamorous clubs in action
during the opening round for 2013.

When the 32-team, eight-group tournament kicks off this week,
most attention will be on a game being billed as the `Clash of the
Asian Super Clubs’.

A crowd of 45,0000 is expected at the home of big-spending
Chinese champion Guangzhou Evergrande to watch Marcello Lippi’s
star-studded squad, including Dario Conca of Argentina and
Paraguay’s Lucas Barrios, take on Japan’s Urawa Reds, the 2007
Asian champion and one of the continent’s best-known teams.

Guangzhou, which has kept the majority of its domestic
title-winning team together, wants to bring the trophy to China for
the first time and is aiming to finish in the top two in Group F in
order to progress to the second round.

”It is a difficult start for us but we are preparing like never
before,” said Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title.
”We reached the quarterfinals last season and it was a great
experience for us. We are ready to try and go further this time and
bring more success to the club.”

After winning the 2007 title, Urawa has been through a rough
patch at home but coach Milhailo Petrovic hopes to announce the
club’s return to the top level in style.

”Every team in our group is a competitive club, and we are also
strong enough to stand up to them. I’m confident that the game
against Guangzhou will be a great one,” said Petrovic, who played
at an international level for the former Yugoslavia. ”We are going
to go all out in every single game and look to pick up a win to get
to a higher level.”

While a club from Japan provides the first test for Guangzhou,
it is likely that the South Korean challenge will have to be
overcome sooner or later. Teams from the K-League have won three of
the past four titles and have been Asian champion a record 10
times.

Jeonbuk Motors, the 2006 champion and 2011 finalist, takes on
Thailand’s Muangthong United in the group’s other game, while in
Group E 2012 Chinese Super League runner-up Jiangsu Sainty makes
its debut in the competition with a trip to FC Seoul.

”Korean teams have been leading the way in Asia,” Jiangsu
coach Dragan Okuka told The Associated Press. ”They have the
experience of winning and know-how to win the tournament. We know
that Seoul is a strong team as the league champion but we go there
without fear and believing we can win.”

Seoul is the only one of Korea’s four representatives in the
2103 edition without a continental title. Suwon Bluewings is aiming
for a third title and is hoping that new signing Jong Tae Se can
make a difference. The North Korean international joined the club
from Koln in Germany to become the fourth North Korean to play in
South Korea’s domestic league.

”I am just excited to play for my new team whether it is in the
Asian Champions League or in the K League Classic,” said Jong. ”I
have appeared in the tournament before with Kawasaki Frontale but
would like to have more success with Suwon.”

Suwon kicks off against Australia’s only representative, Central
Coast Mariners. Since Adelaide United finished as runner-up in the
2008 tournament, teams from the A-League have struggled in the
continental club championship.

Gamba Osaka defeated Adelaide in the 2008 final and a Japanese
team has failed to reach the final since. In 2012, the J-League had
no representation in the quarterfinal stage and is hoping for a
better showing this time.

On the western side of the draw, Saudi and Iranian clubs have
generally been the strongest performers in the Asian league,
although Qatar’s Al Sadd won the title in 2011.

Iran captain Javad Nekounam returns to the competition for the
first time since departing for Osasuna in Spain after the 2005
competition. He is now back in Tehran with Esteghlal.

”Football has completely changed compared with 2005,” Nekounam
said. ”Clubs have improved a lot, more money is being invested in
football and for this reason better players are playing for
different teams throughout Asia. Teams have become more organized
and disciplined.”

The midfielder, who spent six seasons in Spain, pointed to the
United Arab Emirates as a source of increasing competition.

Al Ain won the inaugural tournament in 2003 but both club and
country have struggled to make any impact in recent years, but that
could change.

Dominant at home, Al Ain has a prolific scorer in the form of
Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan, who has scored 43 goals in 33 games since
joining the club from English Premier League team Sunderland. Also
present is UAE midfielder Omar Abdulrahman who has been linked with
a move to some of Europe’s top teams.

Al Ain starts by hosting Saudi giant Al Hilal in Group D.