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Asian Champions League – Will East Asia’s Dominance Continue?

9 March 2009 No Comment

By John Duerden – Goal.com

In recent years, the Asian Champions League has belonged to East Asia.

In fact, if you take the early success of Israel out of the equation, which that nation did by leaving the AFC in 1974, then Japan and South Korea alone have lifted a cool 50% of the total trophies on offer.

That trophy is now a round and slightly strange object but it is becoming more prized by the year. Not only is it a key to FIFA’s Club World Cup, it now brings the much-improved sum of $1.5 million.

While the west was the best in the early years of the champions league, East Asia is currently where it is at. Japanese clubs are going for a hat-trick, Koreans can never be ignored and Chinese football is on the way back –at a club level at least. OK, Australia is not in East Asia but Adelaide United showed last season that A-League clubs should not be underestimated.

Group E

Newcastle Jets (Australia)

Won the title in 2008 but only problem is, it came in February 2008. Much has changed at the Jets since then and the club was a shadow of its former self and finished in last place in the recently concluded A-League. Bizarrely, the club has loaned star striker Joel Griffiths to group opponents Beijing Guoan. As they say in China, that may come back to bite them on the backside.

Beijing Guoan (China)

Fans in the capital are optimistic about this season but would perhaps prefer a first domestic title. The Greenlions are back in the Workers’ Stadium, have sold over 12,000 season tickets already and have made some decent signings – not least the aforementioned Australian and his brother Ryan. Huang Bowen is only 21 but the Qin Huangdo academy graduate has already scored for the national team, is the first name of the teamsheet and is the darling of the fans.

Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I (South Korea)

The Tigers reached the semi-final in 2006 and at that point were favourites to win. Not this time as the club, poor in the first half of last season but much better in title run-in, has lost some decent players. The under-rated Park Dong-hyuk is now at Gamba Osaka and midfielder Lee Sang-ho has joined Suwon. Much depends on injury-prone Yeom Ki-hoon – -a player that would now be in the Premier League if it wasn’t for a mysterious misunderstanding between West Brom and Ulsan. Much depends on Brazilian players Almir and Luisinho.

Nagoya Grampus (Japan)

The Aichi outfit let a first J-league title slip out of their fingers but have a sizeable consolation in the continental competition. Dragan Stojkovic’s team play good football – perhaps naturally so for a former student of Arsene Wenger. Perhaps Nagoya don’t yet have the consistency or defensive solidity to win a 34-game league but shining in the ACL may be a better bet. Norwegian striker Frode Johnsen has left but the signing of Brazilian star Davi has more than made up for that loss – he scored twice on his league debut last weekend.

Group F

Gamba Osaka (Japan)

The champions will be less of a surprise package this season but should be more dangerous after strengthening the side. Big money was paid for South Korean striker Cho Jae-jin and Brazilian goalgetter Leandro from Vissel Kobe –both scored last weekend. The age-old problem of how to challenge for titles in Asia and at home may be the stumbling block for boss Akira Nishino but his team, still with old favourites such as Yasuhito Endo and Hideo Hashimoto, now have that Asian know-how.

FC Seoul (South Korea)

The capital club are eager to make an impact in their first Asian appearance but could easily become distracted by a K-League in which they have yet to triumph. Seoul have made few changes to the team that came so close in Korea last season -something they may have cause to regret if injuries kick in. The youngest squad in the competition with an average age of 23, Seoul’s star youngsters such as Ki Sung-yung, Lee Chung-yung and Lee Sung-ryeol are destined for big things and could, before too long, be playing in the Asian Champions League’s bigger brother.

Shandong Luneng (China)

‘A waste of time’ is how coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic described a nightmare pre-season in which the team lost six games, scoring three and conceding 18, before defeating Central Coast Mariners in a friendly. Unsurprisingly, of the big three clubs in this group, the Jinan side look to be most at risk. There is still hope. Li Jinyu is not China’s record goalscorer for nothing and Han Peng and the influential midfielder Wang Yongpo are back to full fitness. Goalkeeper Li Leilei has been the team’s best player but looks out of shape. Zhou Haibin is the major departure and the new PSV Eindhoven star will be missed.

Sriwijaya (Indonesia)

Qualified for this spot through the play-offs but it is a tough ask for the south-east Asians to even challenge for a top two spot. Budi Sudarsono is famous in the region and the Sumatrans will rely on home advantage to collect points in a tough group.

Group G

Kashima Antlers (Japan)

Six-time Japanese champions and one of the best teams in Asia. The opener at Suwon should be a great match. Suwon said that Kashima look stronger than they thought they would be. The club have been quiet in the transfer market but the return of midfielder Mitsuo Ogawasara from injury is like a new signing. Any team that has an attacker like Brazil’s Marquinhos is always going to pose a threat.

Suwon Samsung Bluewings (South Korea)

Already won the Asian crown twice, Suwon are keen for a third. It won’t be easy as the club has lost a number of key players. Croatian favourite Mato Neretljak has gone to Japan as has Lee Jang-soo. Sparky striker Shin Young-rok is in Turkey and Cho Won-hee in the Premier league. Still, the team is usually solid and possesses the ability to win without playing especially well. Much depends on star striker Eduardo and whether he will have the required support in attack.

Shanghai Shenhua (China)

As the Chinese say, Shanghai were a dragon at home and a worm away last season – that cost them a title. That needs to change to some extent at least if the club are to succeed in Asia. Ambitious, or, if you prefer, ruthless owner Zhu Jun has defied reports that he is short of money by spending lots of it – over $7 million on players such as Australia’s Olympic skipper Mark Milligan and brother of Alexander Hleb, Vyacheslav. International striker Gao Lin has not been included in the squad.

Singapore Armed Forces (Singapore)

Spare a thought for the Singapore side that may sound tough but destined to be the group’s whipping boys when doing battle with the likes of Suwon, Shanghai and Kashima – Richard Bok’s men have little chance.

Group H

Tianjin Teda (China)

Like Shanghai, Tianjin have been splashing the cash and the signing of Wang Xinxin was the most expensive domestic transfer of the winter along with Shanghai’s signing of Chen Tao. They didn’t stop there. Also arriving in the north-east are Mark Bridge from Australia and former Italian international Damiano Tommasi. The best news perhaps for fans is that Brazilian star striker Eber Luis has signed a new contract.

Kawasaki Frontale (Japan)

A high-octane attacking unit that can also defend – Kawasaki have the talent to go far. A very well-balanced outfit that are always likely to score goals. Strikers such as Jung Tae-se and Juninho will cause problems for any defence and are ably supported by the likes of Kengo Nakamura in midfield. An exciting team to watch but there are suspicions that the team doesn’t have what it takes to ‘win ugly’ when necessary. But we will see.

Pohang Steelers (South Korea)

Another good footballing side but the Steelers lack a little solidity at the back and consistency overall. Gained their place by winning the Korean FA Cup that few care about – what may help Pohang is the memory of last season’s failure which was a million miles away from the two continental triumphs of the late nineties. Should score goals though – Macedonian marksman Stevica Ristic and Brazilian battering ram Denilson should see to that.

Central Coast Mariners (Australia)

An unknown quantity as far as Asia is concerned, the Gosford club have been taking the competition seriously with a preparation tour of China. There have been quite a few changes in the team and the departure Mile Jedinak to Turkey is a blow.

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