Guangzhou and Urawa to kick off ACL in style
Former champions Urawa Reds return to the AFC Champions League after a break of four years on Tuesday with the J.League side taking on Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande in a highly-anticipated Group F opener at Tianhe Sport Center.
Huang Bowen (second left) scored in Guangzhou’s 4-2 loss to Al Ittihad last year
Urawa have retained a core of players who beat Iran’s Sepahan 3-1 on aggregate to become the first Japanese side to win the AFC Champions League title in 2007, while current coach Mihailo Petrovic has further added the squad which finished third in the J.League last season.
Guangzhou, though, represent a testing opener for Urawa on their return to the AFC Champions League for the first time since reaching the semi-finals in 2008 after Marcello Lippi’s side reached the quarter-finals last year before completing the domestic double under the FIFA World Cup-winning Italian.
“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 former Yugoslavia international Petrovic, who took over as Urawa coach at the start of 2012.
“We are going to go all out in every single game and look to pick up a win to get to a higher level.
“As 2007 AFC Champions League winners, we are honored and thrilled to return again. All of our players, the club, its supporters and the citizens of Urawa are very much looking forward to these games.”
Having played a key role in 2007 by scoring in the second leg of the final, midfielder Yuki Abe returned at the start of last season after spending 18 months in England with Leicester City, while holding midfielder Keita Suzuki – who captained the side in the AFC Champions League final – remains an influential part of the side under Petrovic.
Central defender Tomoaki Makino has also made his loan move from FC Koln permanent over the close season, while exciting young striker Genki Haraguchi earned a first call up for Japan during 2011.
“The experience of the players who played in 2007 will be invaluable this year,” added Petrovic, who took over after Urawa narrowly avoided relegation in 2011.
“We have also strengthened our squad, which is important when playing through a tight schedule in both the AFC Champions League and the J.League. Our new players can play in various positions and add quality to the team.”
Guangzhou, meanwhile, have largely kept faith with the squad which were just over 11 minutes away from securing a place in the semi-finals on their debut appearance in the AFC Champions League last year only to lose 4-3 on aggregate to two-time champions Al Ittihad from Saudi Arabia.
Brazilian striker Cleo has departed for fellow AFC Champions League qualifiers Beijing Guoan having being left out of the squad for the knockout stages last year, but Guangzhou have retained Argentinean midfielder Dario Conca, Brazilian forward Muriqui and Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios.
Captain Zheng Zhi remains central for Guangzhou whether deployed at centre-back or in midfield, while striker Gao Lin has flourished under Lippi having been one of the first high-profile domestic signings in 2010.
Also in Group F on Tuesday, Thai Premier League winners Muang Thong United entertain 2006 AFC Champions League winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
Muang Thong, under new Serbian coach Slavisa Jokanovic, will be without Thailand number one Kawin Thamsatchanan for the group stage after the goalkeeper suffered a broken leg during a pre-season tournament in Hong Kong earlier this month.
Jeonbuk, meanwhile, will be looking to make a better start to the campaign after the 2006 champions suffered back-to-back 5-1 defeats in their first two games last year and failed to advance from the group stage for the first time.
Elsewhere in the East, K-League champions FC Seoul begin their Group E campaign at home to China’s Jiangsu Sainty, while J.League side Vegalta Sendai entertain play-off winners Buriram United from Thailand.
Thai FA Cup winners Buriram earned their place in the group stage for a second consecutive season after edging out A-League Grand Final winners Brisbane Roar on penalties earlier this month thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Siwarak Tedsungnoen in the shootout.
In the West, Saudi champions Al Shabab face Qatar’s El Jaish in Group A, while Iran Pro League runners-up Tractorsazi Tabriz face UAE President’s Cup winners Al Jazira.
Al Shabab will look to continue Saudi Arabia’s strong recent performances in the AFC Champions League after Al Ittihad won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005 before Al Ahli reached the final last year.
Both Qatar Stars League runners-up El Jaish and Tractorsazi Tabriz are making their debuts in the competition, while Al Jazira reached the Round of 16 for the first time in four attempts last year.
Al Jazira will again look to Brazilian striker Ricardo Oliveira to provide the goals after the former Real Betis frontman topped the AFC Champions League scoring charts last season after netting 12 goals in just seven games.
The UAE Pro League side, though, will also have new coach at the helm for Tuesday’s trip to Iran after Brazilian Paulo Bonamigo was replaced by Spaniard Luis Milla, who was the Spain coach at the 2012 Olympic Games.
In Group B, AFC Champions League ever-presents and Uzbekistan champions Pakhtakor face Saudi Arabia’s Al Ettifaq in Tashkent, while Qatar champions Lekhwiya entertain play-off winners Al Shabab Al Arabia from the United Arab Emirates.
Pakhtakor booked their 11th appearance in the AFC Champions League after reclaiming the Uzbek League title for a record ninth time last year after ending the four year reign of Bunyodkor, while Al Ettifaq will look to build on their run to the semi-finals of the AFC Cup last year.
Lekhwiya beat eventual finalists Al Ahli on Matchday One last year but failed to advance past the group stage in their first AFC Champions League appearance, while Al Shabab Al Arabia beat Iran’s Sabaye Qom 5-3 on penalties following a 1-1 draw in their play-off earlier this month.
World Sport Group