China finally ready Asian Champions League glory

China’s cashed up football clubs are ready to end a 22-year

drought in the Asian Champions League starting 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 is the only Chinese club to lift the trophy back in

1990. Guangzhou is aiming to end that run.

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 The Associated Press.

Guangzhou has been placed in a tough group alongside Japanese

champion Kashiwa Reysol, South Korean champion Jeonbuk Motors and

Thailand’s Buriram United.

Jeonbuk was champion in 2006 and runner-up in 2011, and opens

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 organizers, 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.

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 quarterfinal stage.

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 is ready for its first appearance, but has

been placed in a tough group, 2008 winner Gamba Osaka has been

weakened by player departures and FC Tokyo was 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

savior to a disappointing season.”

Reigning champion Al Sadd failed to qualify for the 2012 edition

and is absent from the western half of the draw. Two-time champion

Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia is always regarded as a potential

winner, as is domestic rival Al Hilal.

Iranian team Sepahan made the final in 2007 and is 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.