With the 2019 AFC Champions League play-offs now done and dusted here's what lies ahead for Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC in the group stage, which kicks off on March 4.
Guangzhou Evergrande (China) - These are interesting times for the two-time continental champions who don’t carry the same air of menace as they did when lifting the trophy in 2013 and 2015. There are rumours in Italy that coach Fabio Cannavaro is interested in the vacant China national team job. It was also revealed that Guangzhou have decided, unilaterally, to field only two foreign players in every league game.
With the Chinese transfer window not quite shut, it is possible that Guangzhou will not be able to field the four foreign players allowed in the Champions League. Old stalwarts such as Zheng Zhi, Gao Lin and Feng Xiaoting are still there but are all well into their thirties. Much will depend on Brazilian star Paulinho.
Daegu FC (South Korea) - Fans in this southeastern city in South Korea still can’t quite believe that they made it into the tournament for the first time. Melbourne will be confident of victory at home in the opening game of the group.
The FA Cup win was a first piece of silverware for a team that has never come close to a league triumph though usually plays decent football. Have been in very good form in pre-season, winning six out of seven games during a Chinese training camp, scoring 23 and conceding just five but the real test for Daegu will come down in Australia.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima (Japan) - Sat on top of the J.league for most of last season but an incredible collapse with two points from the final nine games let in Kawasaki Frontale. The fact that Sanfrecce still finished second shows how well they had been going.
It remains to be seen if there is a hangover but after three titles from 2012 to 2015, it was a sign at least that the Purple Archers, who flirted with relegation in 2017, were back.
The record in Asia is poor however. Needing a penalty shootout to squeeze past Thailand’s Changrai United at home in Tuesday’s playoff suggests that the team still has to get to grips with Asia.
If nothing else, Sanfrecce’s presence gives Keisuke Honda a chance to play in Japan and Besart Berisha, who has struggled a little in Japan, to face his former club.
Kawasaki Frontale (Japan) - Sydney’s group is the tougher of the two. Japanese champions Kawasaki have long been known for their pleasant passing style, led by evergreen playmaker Kengo Nakamura, but at the draw in November, officials admitted that it was time to improve upon what is a patchy record in Asia.
The Kanagawa club offer a threat from all over the pitch but experienced marksman Yu Kobayashi has a habit of grabbing goals when his team really need one. The addition of former Brazilian international striker Leandro Damiao adds more attacking menace, if it were needed, and he scored the only goal of the Super Cup final against Urawa Reds last weekend.
Shanghai SIPG (China) - Finally, Shanghai became champions at home last season for the first time. It was a deserved title though losing Wu Lei, the top scorer of the entire league and China’s best player, to Espanyol of Spain last month was a blow.
There is still plenty of foreign talent in the Brazilian duo of Oscar and Hulk who have the capacity to unlock and punish the best Asian defences and then there is Uzbekistan captain Odil Ahmedov in the middle. There is also a more than decent smattering of Chinese international suchs as Shi Ke, Yan Junling and Cai Huikang. With the domestic title under their belts, the pressure on Shanghai’s shoulders has been relieved a little. SIPG are eyeing the title.
Ulsan Hyundai Horangi (South Korea) - The Tigers have had a few epic battles with A-League teams over the years and last season, Ulsan’s two games with Victory contained 14 goals as they took second place in the group.
The 2012 champions have plenty of experience and looked a class above Mehmet Durakovic’s Perak team in Tuesday’s play-off, beating the Malaysians 5-1. American midfielder Mix Diskerud was a stand out and Brazilian striker Junior Negrao continued his fine goalscoring form from last season.
Ulsan are far from the favourites to lift the trophy but, as Sydney will find out in the opener, can give anyone a game.