So, the AFC Champions League is back, with the group stages kicking off tonight. Last season was very exciting, with a plucky FC Seoul side pushing monied-giants Guangzhou Evergrande all the way, only to lose out on the away goals rule. Will we see another Korean team go to the finals or will Guangzhou defend their title. One rule change will make this year interesting as well. Here we’ll take a brief look at the four Korean teams in the competition and their groups.
First, some basics. The AFC Champions League is set up largely like it’s more illustrious namesake in Europe. There are qualifying rounds (already done), a group stage, and then the knockout rounds. There are eight groups, with four groups being from west Asia and four from east Asia. The top two teams from each group advance to the knockout stages (round of 16, quarters, semis, final).
The round of 16 is as it was. The top team from one group plays the top team from another group (A-C, D-B, E-G, F-H). Here’s the new rule: for the quarterfinals and semifinals teams from west Asia and east Asia will be kept apart, thus guaranteeing a west-east final. Why the change you ask? My suspicion is that west Asia powers were concerned about the rise of China (specifically Guangzhou) along with the historical dominance of Korea (and to a lesser extent Japan) and thought that, just maybe, we may not see too many west Asian teams in the finals, and that the China-Korea final we saw last year may become a trend. The plus side of this rule change is that it lessens the travel distance that clubs need to deal with. During the quarters, the country protection rule is also in effect, so clubs from the same country cannot be drawn against each other.
The final will still be a two-legged affair. So, the clubs in it will need to prepare for a long trip for each match since it will be west vs east. These new rules (and continuation of the two-legged final) will be kept for at least the next three years.
Cerezo Osaka (Japan)
Buriram United (Thailand)
Shandong Luneng Taishan (China)
How they got here:
Pohang – K League champions
Buriram United – Thai Premier League champions
Cerezo Osaka – J League Division 1 4th place
Shandong Luneng Taishan – Chinese Super League runners-up
Pohang failed to make it out of their group last season, but should be able to improve on it this year. Pohang will benefit, compared to the other three Korean teams, in that they will have less travel as there is no Australian team in their group. A good start may be key for Pohang before the fixture list starts to pile up. Cerezo Osaka will be the team that most eyes will be on due to new signing Diego Forlan. The J League record signing has attracted significant attention as, other than some of the Chinese sides, big-name foreign signings have not been too common lately. Cerezo also has a couple of Korean keepers on their books, recent national team call up Kim Jin-Hyeon as well as Koo Sung-Yoon. Coincidentally, current Pohang boss Hwang Sun-Hong spent a year at Cerezo as a player where he notched a stunning 30 goals in 36 games. Shandong Luneng could be a surprise team this year. Shandong finished 18 points behind Guangzhou domestically last season, but the team is solid and their failure to really challenge Guangzhou is due more to the sheer superiority of Marcello Lippi’s side. Buriram United was a bit of a surprise last season, making it all the way to the quarterfinals before losing to Iranian side Esteghlal.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima (Japan)
Central Coast Mariners (Australia)
Beijing Guoan (China)
How they got here:
FC Seoul – K League 4th place
Sanfrecce Hiroshima – J. League division 1 champions
Central Coast Mariners – A-League Grand Final winner, A-League runners-up
Beijing Guoan – Chinese Super League 3rd place, defeated Chonburi 4-0 in qualifying
Last year’s runners-up, FC Seoul should be fairly pleased with their group, as it gives them a good chance to make it to the next round. Seoul notably lost two of it’s star players, striker Dejan Damjanovic and captain/midfielder Ha Dae-Sung, to Chinese clubs during the offseason. Ha Dae-Sung in fact, went to group rivals Beijing Guoan. To add a final wrinkle to this storyline, Seoul knocked out Beijing Guoan in round of 16 last year. Seoul will likely battle two-time defending Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima for the top spot in this group. Sanfrecce won the J. League division 1 title on the final day of the season last year, and will be looking to put in a better showing in Asia this year (bottom of group last year). Sanfrecce has three Korean players on their books, with international defender Hwang Seok-Ho a regular for the team. Beijing Guoan and Central Coast Mariners will be the two looking to upset the favorites. Neither club has many star players, but both are solid teams. Beijing Guoan won the league a few years ago, and have had successive good finishes over the last three years (2nd, 3rd, 3rd). Central Coast Mariners have a similar history. Last season they finished 2nd in the A-League regular season, but won the Grand Finals playoff. Central Coast Mariners recently signed, former AFC CL winner Kim Seung-Yong. Both teams reached the round of 16 last season.
Yokohama F. Marinos
How they got here:
Jeonbuk – K League 3rd place
Guangzhou Evergrande – Chinese Super League champions
Yokohama F. Marinos – J. League Division 1 runners-up, Emperor’s Cup winner
Melbourne Victory – A-League 3rd place, defeated Muangthong United 2-1 in qualifying
Guangzhou will be expected to cruise to the top of this group. The Chinese outfit lost influential midfielder Dario Conca, but brought in talented Italian international Alessandro Diamanti. It would be a shock if Guangzhou didn’t win this group by a comfortable margin. Kim Young-Gwon is still playing for the Chinese giants. Jeonbuk, Korea’s representative in the group, will likely be cursing their luck at being drawn into a difficult group for a second year running (and third year with Guangzhou). Jeonbuk returns most of their side from last season, and have added a couple talented players from Incheon (again). Jeonbuk’s main competition, one would assume, is J. League runners-up Yokohama F. Marinos. The Japanese side is led by the skillful Shunsuke Nakamura, but the club hasn’t been in the Champions League since 2005 so there may be some nerves there. Yokohama, like Ulsan, will be looking to bounce back this season after losing the title on the final day of the season. The likely group whipping boys will be A-League side Melbourne Victory who scrapped a 2-1 qualifying win over Thai side Muangthong United to get in. That being said, Melbourne could be the spoilers here as all three sides will need to make that long trip to Australia to face them. A slip up there could be costly.
Western Sydney Wanderers
How they got here:
Ulsan – K League runners-up
Western Sydney Wanderers – A-League champions
Guizhou Renhe – Chinese FA Cup winners
Kawasaki Frontale – J. League Division 1 3rd place
I think this group will likely be the most unpredictable. All four teams are decent, with no one being a clear favorite. So, probably a tight one, with each team having a chance to qualify going into the last matches. Ulsan retained their team from last season, but a new coach who has no continental experience may be a challenge. Ulsan are still without two of their best players, Lee Keun-Ho and Lee Ho, for the first half of the season as they complete their military service. Western Sydney Wanderers are an interesting team because they literally just came into existence in 2012, but they won the league in their inaugural year. Guizhou Renhe finished 4th in the Chinese Super League, but defeated Guangzhou Evergrande in the Chinese FA Cup final 3-2 on aggregate (perhaps a bit fortunate as Elkeson got a red card in the 31′ of the first leg). Kawasaki Frontale finished third in the J. League and should present a challenge as well (sorry, I really know nothing about Kawasaki Frontale).
Other Koreans in the AFC Champions League
Cho Yong-Hyung (Al-Rayyan, Group A)
Shin Hyung-Min (Al-Jazira, Group A)
Go Seul-Gi (El Jaish, Group B)
Nam Tae-Hee (Lekhwiya, Group C)
Lee Jung-Soo (Al-Sadd, Group D)
Kwak Tae-Hwi (Al-Hilal, Group D)
Opening Matches Featuring Korean Teams/Players (teams that have Koreans are in bold)
Group A: Al-Jazira vs Al-Rayyan (2-25)
Group B: El Jaish vs Foolad (2-25)
Group C: Al-Ain vs Lekhwiya (2-26)
Group D: Al-Sadd vs Sepahan (2-26), Al-Hilal vs Al-Ahli (2-26)
Group E: Pohang Steelers vs Cerezo Osaka (2-25)
Group F: FC Seoul vs Central Coast Mariners (2-25), Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Beijing Guoan (2-25)
Group G: Jeonbuk Motors vs Yokohama F. Marinos (2-26), Guangzhou Evergrande vs Melbourne Victory (2-26)
Group H: Western Sydney Wanderers vs Ulsan Hyundai (2-26)
Tavern Owner intruding: I’m terribly sorry in advance to all non-US Tavern goers – I’m posting the times for the games in US EST. For TV rights in the US, One World Sports will broadcast the game on delay and live this week – they do have for a trial period of time a live stream of the channel on their website.
Pohang Steelers vs Cerezo Osaka 5:30 AM [One World Sports will air on delay at 7AM]
FC Seoul vs Central Coast Mariners 5:30 AM [OWS delay broadcast at12 PM]
Jeonbuk Motors vs Yokohama F-Marinos 5 AM [OWS Live]
Western Sydney Wanderers vs Ulsan Hyundai 3:30 AM [OWS delay broadcast 7 AM]