Kuala Lumpur: The 2021 AFC Champions League group stage kicks off in West Asia on Wednesday, with 20 teams split into five groups entering their continental campaigns.
Among the teams that will appear on the pitch over the next two days, there are two former champions and four debutants, while three countries will be represented in the competition for the very first time.
Ahead of 10 enticing meetings on April 14 and 15, the-AFC.com selected five things to watch out for.
1. Al Hilal has a point to prove
Since Al Ittihad defended their AFC Champions League title in 2005, no other team have been able to retain the trophy – indeed, Urawa Red Diamonds’ run to the semi-finals of 2008 (when they entered the quarterfinals as starters) has been as close as anyone has made it.
However, 2019 champion Al Hilal entered last year’s edition as the title advice to many, with a formidable squad filled with Saudi internationals and overseas superstars, including top scorer and MVP. from the previous year Bafetimbi Gomis, Andre Carrillo and Salem. Al Dawsari.
But disaster struck in the most unfortunate circumstances. After winning their first three games, a COVID-19 outbreak within their squad prevented the reigning champions from forming a squad for their day four match against Pakhtakor and were then forced to withdraw. Ulsan Hyundai won the title and the rest is history.
The Saudi Pro League champions, however, may well see themselves as the best club team in Asia, and they will be desperate to regain their throne to make up for the misfortune of 2020. With a starting XI largely unchanged from the last two years – albeit under new manager Rogerio Micale – they start their Group A home campaign at AGMK on Thursday with a point to prove.
2. A great moment for Indian football
A founding member of the Asian Football Confederation, India has been represented by its teams in continental competitions for more than five decades, with prestigious teams such as Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and, more recently, Bengaluru FC, which are all made a name within the AFC. tournaments.
However, since Asian club football entered its new era around the turn of the millennium, it is the AFC Cup in which the aforementioned teams have shone. The expansion of the AFC Champions League, however, now means for the very first time that there will be an Indian team in the group stage.
As champions of the 2019-2020 Indian Super League, FC Goa will not only make their bow in the AFC Champions League, but also make their very first appearance in a continental competition. And they will do so as Group E hosts at Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Margao, which kicks off Qatar’s Al Rayyan on Wednesday.
Formed just seven years ago, the Gaur are the newest team in the Western Zone, but Goa is part of several football hotbeds across India. While their avid fans may not be able to attend, there will certainly be a lot of buzz surrounding their competitive debut as they prepare to embark on a historic adventure.
3. Air Force Club makes a long-awaited comeback
Between 2004 and 2008, the Iraqi giants Air Force Club participated in the group stage of the AFC Champions League three times, but as far as continental club football is concerned, it is the AFC Cup in which they made a name for themselves.
Such was their domination in this tournament that the Baghdad team won three successive unprecedented titles between 2016 and 2018. Indeed, in three campaigns, they suffered only two defeats, and it is a competition that they have never failed to win when registering.
Considering their record during this period, they may have felt unhappy that when the Iraqi sides returned to the group stage of the AFC Champions League in 2019, it was national champions Al Zawraa, and not the Air Force Club, which were directly admitted to the competition as AFC. The champions of the Cup fell in the turn of the play-offs.
But, after a penalty shootout victory over Saudi Arabia’s Al Wehda last week, the Air Force Club are finally managing to make their long-awaited comeback. With still many stars of this ‘hat-trick’ – including captain Hammadi Ahmed, striker Amjad Radhi and returning Humam Tareq – it will be intriguing to see how they handle their action as they begin their group campaign. B against Sharjah on Wednesday.
4. How will the other three newbies fare?
In addition to the aforementioned FC Goa, three other teams will bow out in the AFC Champions League in the coming days, the Uzbek AGMK and FC Istiklol of Tajikistan lining up in Group A and Jordanian Al Wehdat among the contenders of the group D.
Uzbekistan has been represented in the tournament since the first edition in 2003, but the AGMK has only grown in importance in recent years. After passing Al Gharafa last week, they face a disheartening opening to compete against Al Hilal. But, under former national team head coach Mirdjalal Kasimov, who previously guided Bunyodkor to the semi-finals, there could be a lot of room for optimism.
Two-time AFC Cup finalists FC Istiklol will become Tajikistan’s first representative in the group stage. Dushanbe’s side almost caused a major upheaval in the 2020 playoffs when they led Al Ahli Saudi to Jeddah, and they are once again returning to Saudi Arabia, opening their Group A campaign against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai of the United Arab Emirates Thursday.
Finally, Al Wehdat is one of Jordan’s most famous old clubs and has been a major feature of the AFC Cup over the years, where they have played in the semi-finals and zone semi-finals on several occasions. Having already suffered defeats in the AFC Champions League qualifying rounds, the Amman side are stepping into the big picture, starting against Saudi powerhouse Al Nassr on Wednesday.
As the trio prepare to create new chapters in their respective stories, all eyes will be on how they handle the progression.
5. Al Sadd
Since the 2018 AFC Champions League, Al Sadd is back among the major players in the competition, reaching the semi-finals twice to suffer narrow defeats. Then, in what they would surely consider a disappointing performance, falling to Persepolis in the 2020 round of 16 when many had viewed them as title contenders.
The Doha team return to the group stage for the fourth year in a row, and they do so after an incredible year at the domestic level as they regained the Qatar Stars League against Al Duhail, winning the title with an unbeaten campaign in during which they drew. three of 22 games.
Since their elimination by Persepolis last September, the only losses suffered by Xavi Hernandez’s team have been in the Qatari Stars Cup, and they start their opening match against Foolad Khouzestan in Riyadh without having yet tasted defeat in 2021.
This all points to Xavi, who stepped into the role in mid-2019, having found his footing as a head coach. The 2011 champions boast of a brimming with quality squad – including 2018 top scorer Baghdad Bounedjah, 2019 AFC Player of the Year Akram Afif and Spanish magician Santi Cazorla – and will likely start the tournament as one of the teams. most appreciated.