The AFC Champions League is back for 2021 with matches in West Asia kicking off on April 14. A novel look, an expanded field, a new format and clubs making their debuts all give a fresh look to the tournament going into its 40th iteration.
The expanded ACL features 40 teams, an increase from 32, with squads like FC Goa (India), Viettel FC (Vietnam) and Ratchaburi Mitr Phol (Thailand) getting their first taste of the continental showpiece. The stakes will be high early as just ten group winners are guaranteed a spot in the knockout stages.
Al Hilal ended East Asia's near decade-long dominance of the ACL in 2019, but Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea wrested the trophy back in 2021. As the West Zone campaign begins at centralised venues in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and India, we look at the major talking points from the five groups.
Group A: Al Hilal look to leave the ghosts of 2020 behind
Al Hilal's title defence in 2020 capitulated to the pandemic as they were ousted from the tournament restart in Qatar. Fifteen of their players tested positive for coronavirus after an outbreak within the ranks. With a new coach Rogerio Micale at the helm, the Saudi Arabian giants will once again have the coveted trophy in their sights.
Micale, who guided Brazil to their first-ever Olympic gold in 2016, has returned Al Hilal to the top of the 2020-21 Saudi Professional League after taking over from Razvan Lucescu. The club were struggling at third, with just two wins from the ACL-winning coach's last nine games in February.
Al Hilal will host Shabab Al Ahli (UAE) and debutants Istiklol (Tajikistan) and AGMK (Uzbekistan) in Group A. With the squad hitting top form at the right moment and the likes of Sebastian Giovinco and Bafetimbi Gomis still going strong, they will hope to make light work of their group stage opponents to mount another title challenge.
Group B: Will Air Force Club recreate their AFC Cup exploits?
Iraq's Air Force Club have been the undisputed kings of the second-tier AFC Cup in recent years winning the competition three times in a row starting in 2016. As they return to ACL for the first time since 2008, it will be interesting to see whether the Falcons can still maintain success in the highest echelon of Asian club football.
The group stage draw has been relatively kind to the Iraqis as they have been pitted against Sharjah (UAE), Tractor (Iran) and Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan). Pakhtakor are the favorites to top the standings after reaching the quarterfinals last season only to be knocked out by eventual finalists Persepolis.
Ayoub Odisho's men can realistically aim to progress as one of the six best runners-up from the ten groups -- especially with them enjoying a purple patch that has them eight points clear at the top of the Iraqi Premier League table and on course to win their domestic leagues after two seasons as runners-up behind Al Zawraa and Al Shorta
Group C: Familiar opponents set for another close contest?
This group features three sides that battled it out in Group A last season: Al Ahli (Saudi Arabia), Al Shorta (Iraq) and Esteghlal (Iran). They will be joined by 2019-20 Qatari champions Al Duhail, and if last season's results are anything to go by, we could be in for a treat.
Al Ahli made it out of the group with six points while Esteghlal only pipped Al Shorta on goal difference to reach the knockout stage after the two sides finished on five points -- the group was reduced to three teams following the absence of Al Wahda due to COVID-19 restrictions.
With Al Duhail added into the mix in 2021, which teams will make it out of the group? Will it be a straight fight between them and Al Ahli for the knockout places? Or can Al Shorta and Esteghlal make their own impact at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah over the next couple of weeks? Group C will indeed be one to keep a watch on.
Group D: Xavi and Al Sadd must aim higher after 'Invincible' season
Recently-crowned Qatar Stars League champions Al Sadd and Saudi Arabia's Al Nassr are clear favourites to progress from Group D, which also features Foolad Khuzestan (Iran) and Al Wehdat, who will become the first club from Jordan to play in the Asian Champions League.
But for Al Sadd and their head coach Xavi, it's high time they got their hands on the biggest prize in Asia. The Barcelona legend has reached the ACL semifinals twice, first as a player in 2018 and then as a coach in 2019, but Asian silverware is still missing from the Spaniard's impressive trophy collection.
Could this be the year the Qatari giants finally emerge victorious? After coasting through the QSL season unbeaten for a second title in three seasons and also winning the Qatar Cup by overcoming fierce rivals Al Duhail, you wouldn't want to bet against Xavi and his "Invincibles" to finally come good in the continental stage.
Group E: Can debutants FC Goa compete among the big boys?
Group E of the AFC Champions League is headlined by 2020 runners-up Persepolis, but all eyes will be on hosts FC Goa, who are the first club to represent India in the group stages of the tournament by virtue of becoming the regular season winners during the 2019-20 Indian Super League.
The challenge for Goa will be gargantuan with ACL regulars Al Rayyan (Qatar) and Al Wahda (UAE) also joining them, but head coach Juan Ferrando will hope a strong Spanish contingent including playmaker Alberto Noguera and ISL joint-top scorer Igor Angulo, as well as the familiar surroundings, will aid Goa as they get their first taste of ACL.
Meanwhile, Persepolis are looking to reach their third final in four seasons, but the Red Army were second best on both previous occasions. Will it be third time lucky for Persepolis in the Champions League in 2021 as Yahya Golmohammadi looks to deliver the much anticipated trophy to the Iranian fans?