View from the East: Evergrande still Asia’s team to beat

Christopher Atkins 09:00 23/02/2016
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Guangzhou Evergrande beat Al Ahli in the 2015 Asia Champions League final.

Guangzhou Evergrande kick off their AFC Champions League campaign in unusual circumstances this week, entertaining Pohang Steelers in what will be an empty Tianhe Stadium.

The reigning champions were issued with a $160,000 fine were ordered to play their opening home game of this campaign after breaking a number of regulations against Al Ahli in last season’s final.

Among the offences were: filming their opponent’s closed training, conducting an unauthorised ceremony and infringing upon the rights of AFC sponsors.

However, despite their run-ins with the organisers, the Cantonese side start the competition as favourites for the title once more. Standing in their way in Group H are Pohang, Sydney FC and Japanese heavyweights Urawa Reds.

With new signing Jackson Martinez having bolstered the side’s existing attacking unit, confidence is high.

Brazilians Ricardo Goulart and Paulinho will provide formidable support and a third continental title in four seasons is already the club’s stated ambition.

At €42 million, Martinez briefly became Asia’s most expensive player earlier in February—only to see Jiangsu Suning’s Alex Teixeira increase that mark to €50 million only days later.

Teixeira—along with compatriot Ramires—is another set for his competition debut this week.

It is for that reason that Jiangsu FC, as they will be known in the tournament, will doubtless usurp the Cantonese giants as East Asia’s most-discussed side over coming weeks.

Given their unparalleled expenditure, expectations are understandably high and Tuesday’s visit to Vietnam to take on Binh Duong provides an excellent opportunity to begin their new era on a high.

Future tests against Jeonbuk Motors and FC Tokyo, though, should provide a better indication of what Jiangsu can achieve in what will be their second Champions League outing.

Despite their comparative lack of pedigree, a winter spend of €99 million ensures failure to advance will not be greeted well by the club’s ownership in Nanjing.

As far as a “Group of Death” is concerned in East Asia, Group F sees 2015 J.League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima take on Thai league winners Buriram United, 2013 ACL finalists FC Seoul and a star-studded Shandong Luneng outfit led by former Brazil coach Mano Menezes.

Sanfrecce begin the group as clear favourites after their fine showing at the Club World Cup in December and begin their campaign on Tuesday at home to Chinese rivals Shandong.

On paper, they are capable of ending a recent Japanese dry run in the competition dating back to 2008.

New signing Peter Utaka has replaced new Al Ain-arrival Douglas in Hiroshima and is a familiar foe for his opponents having previously spent three seasons in the Middle Kingdom.

Shandong, on the other hand, have surprisingly omitted 2015 top-scorer   from their squad for the tournament. Diego Tardelli, Jucilei, Walter Montillo and new arrival Gil make up the club’s foreign ranks.

Another big name making his ACL debut is Shanghai SIPG manager Sven-Goran Eriksson whose squad contains former winners Elkeson, Sun Xiang and Dario Conca—plus Al Ain favourite Asamoah Gyan.

While hopes will be high of a trip deep into the knockout rounds for last year’s CSL runner-up, formidable opposition awaits in the shape of Gamba Osaka, Suwon Bluewings and 2015 A-League champions Melbourne Victory.

Eriksson’s men begin their challenge in Victoria this Wednesday but will need to cope with the demands of fighting on two fronts for the first time against a trio of experienced campaigners.

After several years of big-names disappointing, SIPG will hope that 2016 is finally the year in which a second Chinese side can offer support to Evergrande in challenging for continental honours.

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