Today the Asian Champions League kicks off. The most mouth watering of clashes is undoubtedly Urawa Reds v Guangzhou Evergrande starting at 11pm (Sydney time) tonight. Also on the schedule for Matchday 1 is Muangthong United v Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
As all fans of Asian soccer would know Evergrande from the Chinese Super League are the nascent force in the region. Last year the Chinese giants entered the ACL for the first time under super star manager Marcello Lippi. Evergrande made it to the quarter finals in 2012, while in the CSL they swept all before them again. Lippi spoke of his excitement about the Urawa Reds assignment, “We are ready for the match and hopefully we can show our spirit and style in the game.” The Italian also alluded to some injury concerns which arose over the off season, “During winter training unfortunately I only had half of the team available. Zhao Xuri and Feng Xiaoting came back with injuries and they were unable to take part in training.” Evergrande will still take some beating with their wealthy stock of imports that include Dario Conca from Argentina and Paraguayan Lucas Barrios.
Meanwhile the Urawa Reds are also coming into the match with high aspirations. The team looked favourites to take out the J League title at times last year but faded disappointingly. Reds manager Mihailo Petrovic said, ” I am aware of the possibilities of losing to such a strong opponent; however, we won’t lose in terms of fighting spirit. I also hope we can cause them a lot of trouble.” Petrovic’s men made a habit of scoring goals with speedy transition play last year, and on an away trip early in the season, you can expect them to fall back on that style. It’s more than a suitable situation for the Reds as they’ll face a hostile Chinese crowd but no pressure to make the play. While Petrovic speaks conservatively about Urawa’s chances, you can bet the Japanese will fancy themselves with possibly the most dazzling midfield in Asia. If you only watch one ACL game this Matchday, make it this one.
In Thailand Muangthong will host established Asian powerhouse Jeonbuk. The green team from Korea have a great record in continental competition but Muangthong will hardly be awestruck. The Thai outfit claimed the local league by a 14 point margin and the atmosphere will be electric as the Thai’s love to pit themselves against their more acclaimed Asian neighbours. Muangthong come into the match after a recent loss to rivals Buriram in the Thai King’s Trophy match (2012 league winner v 2012 cup winner). With names like Guangzhou and Urawa in the group both Jeonbuk and Muangthong will not underestimate the importance of taking maximum points tonight.
From an Australian viewpoint it was disappointing to see Brisbane Roar crash out to Buriram in the recent play-off match. However, the Thai’s will definitely add more in terms of crowd involvement. With only one representative in the tournament Australians could quite easily lose interest but the Central Coast Mariners should make an impact this year. The Mariners are drawn in a favourable group which includes Guizhou Renhe, Kashiwa Reysol and first round opponent Suwon Bluewings. While Suwon have acquired the services of North Korean ace Jong Tae Se and Aussie Eddy Bosnar, the Mariners are now old hands at the continental game and manager Graham Arnold has used his contacts in Japan to attain comprehensive scouting reviews. Speaking of his connection with Shimizu S Pulse manager Afshin Ghotbi Arnold said, “I contacted him, and as well as the DVD he was good enough to give me a written report on their players.” Ghotbi’s team played Suwon in a pre-season trial. Ghotbi is set to be sourced for information on J League outfit Kashiwa Reysol also. For the Mariners the ACL is the only frontier which they’ve failed to make strides in, but if the weekend’s 6-2 drubbing of Melbourne Victory is anything to go by, they’re set to stamp their names into the minds of Asian soccer fans.