HONG KONG, China, Feb 12 – Guangzhou Evergrande coach Fabio Cannavaro and Shanghai SIPG’s record signing Oscar will spearhead a four-pronged Chinese assault when the 2018 AFC Champions League group phase begins this week.
Evergrande, Asian champions in 2013 and 2015, have Cannavaro back at the helm for the second time and open their campaign at home to Thailand’s Buriram United on Wednesday in Group G.
Oscar, a 60-million-euro signing a year ago, is looking for a first trophy with SIPG after they crashed out in the semi-finals last season under Andre Villas-Boas, having beaten Evergrande in the quarter-finals.
Villas-Boas has been replaced at SIPG by fellow Portuguese Vitor Pereira who has vowed to win a trophy and gets the first test of his management away to Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale, who reached the quarter-finals last season, on Tuesday.
“The opening match is particularly important if we want to qualify for the knockout stage, so we have to prepare well,” said Kawasaki’s Yu Kobayashi, who netted six goals in the competition last season.
“Shanghai have Oscar and Hulk, who are experienced, high-quality players.”
Joining them in Group F are South Korea’s Ulsan who open with a long journey south to Melbourne Victory in Australia.
– Modeste double –
Cannavaro resigned at Tianjin Quanjian just days after steering them into the Champions League for the first time.
Tianjin have a new Portuguese coach in Paulo Sousa who is already beginning to like what he is seeing from Cannavaro’s high-profile French recruit Anthony Modeste, who scored both goals to beat Ceres Negros of the Philippines 2-0 in a playoff to reach the group phase.
Sousa’s side will begin at home to Hong Kong debutants Kitchee, who have signed 38-year-old former Manchester United and Uruguay striker Diego Forlan to bolster their challenge.
Shanghai Shenhua, minus expensive misfit Carlos Tevez who has returned to Argentina, complete the Chinese quartet with Wu Jingui in charge for their first group match since 2011, having replaced Gus Poyet in September.
But they face a tough baptism away to Japan’s Kashima Antlers in Group H which also sees Sydney FC host Suwon Bluewings, who will field new signing Dejan Damjanovic up front after snaring the 36-year-old K-league goal machine from FC Seoul last month.
For the second year running there will be no defending champions taking part. Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds failed to qualify despite beating Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in November’s two-legged final.
And last season the 2016 winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were kicked out of the Champions League for their part in a match-fixing, scouting and bribery scandal, though they return this year after serving their ban.
– Sneijder debut –
The tournament will feature Monday games in the Western region, which will remain separated from the Eastern region until the final.
Al Hilal and Al Ain have come closest to breaking the East’s stranglehold on the trophy in recent times -– the sides finished runners-up in 2017 and 2016 respectively -– and they face off in one of the clashes of the round in Group D in Riyadh on Tuesday.
The UAE’s Al Ain have strengthened their line-up by signing former Asian player of the year Ahmed Khalil to team up with shaggy-haired star Omar Abdulrahman in a formidable attacking line-up.
Abu Dhabi’s Al Jazira, fresh from hosting the FIFA Club World Cup in December, welcome Qatar’s Al Gharafa who will have former Real Madrid and Inter Milan midfielder Wesley Sneijder, 33, making his AFC Champions League debut.
The Dutch maestro will play alongside another new signing, Iran’s Mehdi Taremi, who bagged seven goals last season as Persepolis reached the semi-finals for the first time in their history.