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Who are the likely contenders from the West in AFC Champions League 2022?

Al Hilal will be looking to defend their status as champions of Asia in AFC Champions League 2022 having won a record fourth title last year. AP Photo/Amr Nabil

AFC Champions League 2022 officially kicks off on Thursday as the group stage action in the West Zone takes place across five groups in Saudi Arabia.

Once again, teams will take their first steps towards continental glory and, as always, the western half of the competition boasts its fair share of likely contenders.

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Here, we take a look at five teams who will be looking to go far in this year's tournament.

Al Hilal

As the defending champions, Al Hilal will head into ACL 2022 as one of the favourites -- especially with the added bonus of home advantage throughout the group stage.

Nonetheless, with only the group winners guaranteed a place in the Round of 16, Al Hilal will have to be wary of avoiding the drama of last year when they surprisingly finished behind debutants Istiklol and only scraped through as one of the West Zone's three best runners-up.

Although the reigning Saudi Professional League champions have parted ways with Bafetimbi Gomis -- a key player in their ACL triumphs of 2019 and 2021 -- they have secured a capable replacement in former Manchester United man Odion Ighalo, to complement the likes of Moussa Marega, Salem Al-Dawsari and Salman Al-Faraj.

On paper, Al Hilal are the strongest outfit in Group A but will have to be wary of United Arab Emirates' Sharjah, who also made it out of the group stage last season. Familiar foes Istiklol of Tajikistan and Qatari club Al Rayyan -- featuring Colombia star James Rodriguez -- complete the group.

Al Sadd

For the second season running, Al Sadd won the Qatar Stars League crown without losing a single match but replicating their domestic dominance on the Asian stage continues to prove elusive -- with their last ACL triumph dating all the way back to 2011.

Even the legendary Xavi -- first as a player and then as coach -- would could only achieve a semifinal appearance at best, with the pressure now on ex-Watford boss Javi Gracia to lead them to continental glory.

Al Sadd continue to boast some of the biggest names in Qatari football, including Akram Afif, Abdelkarim Hassan and Hassan Al-Haydos, and also have a formidable overseas contingent to call upon.

It is impossible to look past former Arsenal star Santi Cazorla as the main man in their quest to make it out of Group E, which also includes Al Wehdat (Jordan), Al Faisaly (Saudi Arabia) and Nasaf Qarshi (Uzbekistan), at the very least -- especially after Al Sadd shockingly failed to do just that last season.

Al Duhail

Another one of Qatari football's powerhouses, Al Duhail may have now gone two years without success in the league although they did manage the consolation of eliminating Al Sadd en route to claiming the Emir of Qatar Cup last month.

Al Duhail will be favourites to finish top of Group D but could face tricky ties in the form of Uzbekistan's Pakhtakor and Iranian outfit Sepahan, with Al Taawoun of Saudi Arabia rounding off the quartet.

Like Al Sadd, Al Duhail have no shortage of established Qatar internationals in their ranks, including Almoez Ali, Bassam Al-Rawi and Karim Boudiaf, while Belgium defender Toby Alderweireld and Kenyan striker Michael Olunga provide an added touch of class.

And similarly to their compatriots, Al Duhail will be looking to make amends in 2022 after failing to qualify for the knockout round last term although, in their defence, they did find themselves in a Group of Death that included fellow heavyweights Esteghlal and Al Ahli -- with only the former advancing in the end.

Al Jazira

Although United Arab Emirates are one of the West Zone's stronger nations, it is remarkable that only once have they produced the champions of Asia -- in 2003 when Al Ain went all the way in the inaugural edition of Asia's premier club competition in the current format.

Since 2016, when Al Ain were runners-up, no Emirati side has made it past the quarterfinals -- a disappointing record that Al Jazira will be looking to address in the upcoming campaign.

As the reigning UAE Pro League champions, Al Jazira appear the United Arab Emirates' best bet of a title contender and the draw has been quite favourable on them as they find themselves in Group B up against Air Force Club (Iraq), Mumbai City (India) and Al Shabab (Saudi Arabia).

In UAE international Ali Mabkhout, who has bagged 79 goals in 103 international appearances, Al Jazira have one of Asia's most-prolific strikers in the last decade but whether or not there is a strong enough supporting cast for him will probably decide how far they go.

Al Shabab

Back among Asia's elite for the first time since 2015, Al Shabab will be looking to make up for lost time.

Given their prolonged absence from the competition, it is difficult to gauge how well equipped they are to compete at the highest level the continent has to offer although they do look to have the required quality within the ranks.

Argentine midfielder Ever Banega, formerly of Sevilla and Inter Milan, is the obvious standout while Saudi Arabia internationals such as Hattan Bahebri, Nawaf Al-Abed and Ahmed Sharahili all have previous experience in the ACL.

With Al Jazira in the same group, either one of these sides may have to ensure they pick up maximum points against Mumbai City and Al Shabab to stand a chance of advancing as one of the best-performing second-place teams.