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.