Monday 04 March 2019, 07:16

Asian giants begin race for continental glory

  • AFC Champions League kicks off on Tuesday

  • This year’s 32-team field features eight former winners

  • Four sides seeking to become the first to complete an Asian treble

A little less than four months since Kashima Antlers lifted the 2018 AFC Champions League trophy, the race for this year's title commences on Tuesday. Thirty-two of Asia's top teams representing 12 countries battle against each other for the continental laurels, in a mammoth campaign which runs across nice months, concluding on 24 November.

Catching the most attention are eight former winners, including defending champions Kashima Antlers and Al Ain, who impressed as hosts at last year's FIFA Club World Cup by finishing as runners-up. There are, meanwhile, a pair of debutants in Daegu FC and Gyeongnam FC who aim to spring a surprise or two, while both Iraq's Al Zawraa and Johor Darul Ta'zim are seeking to make an impact on their return to the Asian stage.

2019 AFC Champions League Group A: Al Wasl, Al Zawraa, Zob Ahan, Al Nassr Group B: Al Ittihad, Al Wahda, Lokomotiv Tashkent, Al Rayyan Group C: Al Duhail, Al Hilal, Al Ain, Esteghlal Group D: Persepolis, Al Sadd, Al Ahli, Pakhtakor Group E: Gyeongnam FC, Johor Darul Ta'zim, Kashima Antlers, Shandong Luneng Group F: Guangzhou Evergrande, Daegu FC, Melbourne Victory, Sanfrecce Hiroshima Group G: Urawa Red Diamonds, Beijing FC, Jeonbuk Motors, Buriram United Group H: Sydney FC, Kawasaki Frontale, Shanghai SIPG, Ulsan Hyundai

Player to watch Qatari champions Al Duhail will look to their star-striker Almoez Ali as they aim for their maiden Asian title. The 22-year-old on-song forward was a revelation at January's AFC Asian Cup, helping his country to the title through an incredible run of goalscoring form. Should Ali maintain his prolific form, Al Duhail can mount a serious challenge for the championship.

The numbers that matter 2 - The 2019 edition sees a pair of first-timers in K League sides Daegu FC and Gyeongnam FC, both of which enter their Asian debut seeking to make history. The former emerged the surprise winners of last season's K League while the latter finished as runners-up.

3 - Al Ittihad, Guangzhou Evergrande, Jeonbuk Motors and Urawa Red Diamonds are arguably the joint most successful performers in this Champions League since 2003, having completed an Asian brace each. Not surprisingly, the quartet will enter this edition aiming to become the first team to lift the trophy for a record third time.

15 - This campaign marks the fifteenth continental appearance for both Pakhtakor and Al Hilal, making the duo the joint most frequent competitors on the Asian scene.