Asia begins search for a new champion

2021 AFC Champions League kicks off on Wednesday under new format
Teams increased to 40 across 10 groups
Defending champions Ulsan Hyundai face tough competition from former winners

Almost four months after Korea Republic’s Ulsan Hyundai defeated IR Iran’s Persepolis FC in the final of the 2020 AFC Champions League, Asia’s elite clubs will embark on the quest for a new title with the start of the group stage this Wednesday.

With the number of teams increased to 40 and several clubs participating for the first time, this year’s tournament is expected to throw up a surprise or two. To mark the occasion, previews the latest edition of Asia’s premier club competition.


Group A: Al Hilal, Shabab Al Ahli, Istiklol, AGMK

Group B: Sharjah, Tractor, Pakhtakor, Iraqi Air Force Club

Group C: Al Duhail, Al Ahli Saudi, Esteghlal, Al Shorta

Group D: Al Sadd SC, Al Nassr, Al Wehdat, Foolad

Group E: Persepolis, Al Rayyan, Goa, Al Wahda

Group F: BG Pathum United, Ulsan Hyundai, Viettel, play-off winner

Group G: Pohang Steelers, Nagoya Grampus, Johor Darul Ta’zim, Ratchaburi Mitr Phol

Group H: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Gamba Osaka, Tampines Rovers, Sydney FC

Group I: Kawasaki Frontale, Beijing Guoan, United City, play-off winner

Group J: Guangzhou, Port, Kitchee, play-off winner

New format

The new edition of the tournament will see 40 teams participating for the first time. These will be divided into ten groups with the winners of each advancing to the knockout stage. The six best second-placed teams – three from the East Region and three from the West – will also qualify.

The West Region fixtures will be held between 14-30 April, while the corresponding East ones, which were scheduled for 21 April to 7 May, will now take place between June and July 2021.

Host countries

Due to Covid-19, the new Champions League season will begin with a novel format in line with the AFC’s health measures. Teams will therefore be required to play their group games at centralised venues due to travel restrictions imposed by some countries. The AFC allowed national associations that have teams participating in the tournament and that can comply with the health requirements and safety protocols to offer to host games. In addition, travel to these host countries must be straightforward, their public health situation must be good, and they should be able to arrange regular Covid-19 testing for all players and officials.

It was therefore decided that Saudi Arabia would host the games from Groups A, C, and D, while Group B’s fixtures will be held in the United Arab Emirates. India will host Group E and Thailand Groups F, G, and J. Host countries for Groups H and I will be determined later.


Ulsan Hyundai face a tough task with the defence of their title, given the increased number of teams and participation of a slew of former champions, such as compatriots Pohang Steelers and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, as well as Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, Qatar’s Al Sadd, China PR’s Guangzhou, and Japan’s Gamba Osaka.

But Ulsan, who will be aiming to reach the final for the third time in their history after their 2012 and 2020 titles, should be too strong for group-stage opponents Pathum United of Thailand, who are participating for only the second time, Vietnamese debutants Viettel and a play-off round winner still to be determined.

2020 runners-up Persepolis should not be unduly troubled by their group-stage opponents either after being drawn with debutants Goa of India and two more experienced clubs – Qatar’s Al Rayyan and UAE’s Al Wahda. The latter qualified from the play-off round after beating Iraq’s Al Zawra’a.

2019 winners Al Hilal also have designs on the trophy, but first they will have to win a tough battle with UAE’s Shabab Al Ahli to take top spot in Group A if they want to progress automatically to the knockout stage. For their part, 2011 champions Al Sadd, coached by former FIFA World Cup™ winner Xavi Hernandez, would dearly love to reprise that continental triumph.

Another World Cup winner, the Italian Fabio Cannavaro, hopes to follow in the footsteps of his former coach Marcello Lippi and lead Guangzhou to the Asian title for the third time in their history. In last year’s edition, however, the Chinese club failed to go beyond the group stage.

Players to watch

The four players who top-scored in the last four editions are back again in 2021. In addition to last year’s ace marksman, the Moroccan Abderrazak Hamdallah, we have his 2019 counterpart Bafetimbi Gomis of France, who will be hoping to fire Al Hilal to the title again. Also aiming to rediscover past form is Al Sadd’s Algerian forward Baghdad Bounedjah, who found the target 13 times in the 2018 edition.

The Syrian Omar Kharbin, Asian Footballer of the Year in 2017, moved to UAE club Al Wahda at the start of the year and helped them reach the group stage by scoring the team’s first goal in the play-off round win over Al Zawra’a. He will be hoping to reprise his scoring feats with Al Hilal from 2017, when he topped the charts with ten strikes.

Ulsan Hyundai will be looking to their star man Yoon Bitgaram, who was voted MVP in last year’s edition, to defend their title, while the Brazilian Paulinho is hoping to win a second Champions League title with Guangzhou after tasting continental glory in 2015.

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