It’s a little hard to know how to feel about the draw that was conducted on Thursday night for the 2019 AFC Champions League.

On the one hand there was just enough detail to whet the appetite, but on the other with 13 of the 32 teams still to be determined, and with a lot of different possibilities for those 13 slots, there’s still a great unknown as to what the groups will end up looking like when the groups stages get underway in March 2019.

All that will become a little clearer in the next 2-3 weeks when leagues in Japan, Korea, Indonesia and Uzbekistan wrap up, and Cup finals are held in Japan, Korea and China. So while it looks messy now, it’ll really take shape over the next few weeks.

But while the draw fell a little flat with so much of it still unknown, there is still plenty to look forward to. Let’s start first with the Australian teams.

Melbourne Victory

Melbourne Victory was drawn into Group F, and only one of their group opponents is known at this stage and that is Guangzhou Evergrande, which they faced in 2014.

Guangzhou Evergrande are well known to fans in Australia who have become accustomed to their stranglehold on the Chinese game. But that grip loosened a little this year when they lost the CSL title for the first time in seven years. With an ageing squad, this is certainly not the same Guangzhou side that were at the peak of their powers in the 2013-2015 period.

While they still have quality, the fear factor shouldn’t exist, not least because Victory has shown previously they can match it with Guangzhou, and their conquerors in Shanghai SIPG.

The other two teams remain unknown. One of those spots will be filled by the winner of the Korean FA Cup Final between Ulsan Hyundai and Daegu. Form would suggest that is likely to be Ulsan given they have won the last six encounters between the two sides, including winning all three encounters this year 2-0.

Like Guangzhou they are a team Victory will know well, having faced them in the group stage of this year’s competition, playing out an enthralling 3-3 draw in Melbourne before being humbled 6-2 in the return leg in Korea. One of the key protagonists from that encounter, Austrian Richard Windbichler, has already announced he will leave Ulsan at the end of this season.

Daegu are an unknown commodity, having never participated in the ACL. In fact, their best ever finish in the K League was seventh back in 2006, the same position they currently hold this year with still two rounds left to play. They are, however, a whopping 40 points behind first placed Jeonbuk Hyundai and 16 points behind Ulsan, who are currently third.

One player fans may recognise is goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who came to prominence for his standout performances, and funky haircut, at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia.

The other spot will likely be filled by a Japanese side, although they still have to come through a playoff, likely against emerging Thai side Chiangrai United. History would suggest the Japanese team will be too strong, and we will know who that will be in a few weeks. As it stands it could be one of a number of teams.

The most likely is Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the new club of Victory legend Besart Berisha. Should Sanfrecce defeat relegation-threatened Nagoya Grampus (home of former Victory goalkeeper Mitch Langerak) at home this weekend, they will secure second spot in the J.League and with it will become Japan’s third ranked team, which will put them in that playoff.

Should they drop points against Nagoya, and again next week against Consadole Sapporo, it is still possible that Kashima Antlers and even Sapporo themselves could finish second and take that playoff spot.

The only other scenario is if Kashima finish second and also win the Emperor’s Cup (they face Urawa Reds in the semi final in early December), in which case the team that finishes third in the J.League would take the playoff spot.

Confused yet?

Of course, Melbourne Victory taking on a Japanese club is one of the headline acts of this AFC Champions League, given it will be the homecoming of Keisuke Honda. Should a Japanese club win through to join Victory in Group F, they will host Victory in Japan on 12 March in what will be a highly anticipated encounter, while they would host the Japanese club on 22 May at AAMI Park in the final group game.

No doubt Victory would’ve preferred to know the identity of that club further in advance so they could really promote the event, but given they won’t host any Japanese club until May still gives them plenty of time to generate some buzz amongst their fans. It does, however, make it more difficult for fans wanting to plan an away trip to Japan.

Sydney FC

Sydney FC’s group is a little more straightforward in terms of knowing who they will face, and it wouldn’t be a draw involving an Australian team if it didn’t involve a ‘Group of Death’. The Sky Blues certainly drew the short straw here.

One of the other changes the AFC made to the draw procedure this year was to do away with the seeding that previously meant the champions, or number one ranked teams from Japan, China, Korea and Australia couldn’t be drawn in the same group.

And in Group H we now have the number one ranked teams from Japan, China and Australia. It’s as tough as it could possibly be for Sydney.

Shanghai SIPG are a known commodity, but having broken their trophy drought this year in the CSL, will take a renewed confidence into the ACL next year. They were expected by many to go all the way this year, especially after storming their way through their group, but were surprisingly knocked out by eventual champions Kashima Antlers in the Round of 16. So come 2019 they will be even more determined than ever to add the ACL title to their trophy cabinet.

Like Guangzhou they have an ageing squad, but they still possess enough quality to be classed as a serious contender before a ball is kicked.

The other team that is known in Sydney’s group is Kawasaki Frontale, who just recently secured back-to-back J.League titles.

Their performances in the ACL have been mixed in their six appearances, making the quarter finals three times, while they’ve twice failed to progress from the group. Their latest showing this year was one of their worst, finishing bottom of Group F without a win.

I wouldn’t expect that to be the case next year, however. The club previously carried the tag of always being the bridesmaid, but never the bride. That ended in 2017 with their first J.League title, and they backed that up this year with an even more impressive title win.

Those successes have now built a strong winning culture at the club, illustrated by the fact they came from 13 points behind Sanfrecce Hiroshima to storm home in the second half of the season to win the league with two games to spare.

With that monkey now off their back, and having seen the success of Urawa and Kashima in the last two seasons, no doubt Kawasaki will be inspired to add the ACL title to their growing trophy cabinet. Led by the evergreen Kengo Nakamura, who seemingly just gets better with age, they will pose a significant challenge.

The final team in Sydney’s group with come from the playoffs, which history suggests will be a Korean side. That could be any of a number of teams with so much left to play out and depending on where Ulsan finish in the league and whether or not they win the KFA Cup. As it stands it could be any one of Gyeongnam, Ulsan, Pohang Steelers or Suwon Bluewings. There are simply too many variables right now to even speculate who that team might be.

Newcastle Jets

The final Australian side in the mix is Newcastle Jets, who must navigate a tricky playoff route to even make it to the group stage.

First up they must face the winner of Home United and the league champions of Indonesia, which with three games still to play looks like it will be either PSM Makassar or Persija Jakarta, with just one point separating the two sides. Persib Bandung, a further four points back, are still in the hunt too.

As we saw last year when Brisbane Roar came unstuck – literally – against Filipino side Ceres-Negros, nothing can be taken for granted in these one-off playoff games.

I’ve often thought the teams from the ‘big’ nations have had an unfair advantage in these playoffs given they have home advantage. To even the ledger a little I’ve always thought the team from the lower ranked nation should host, if nothing else than to give their fans a taste of ACL action.

If this were the scenario I would love to see the Jets take on Persija, as there would be 60,000-plus packed into the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta for the occasion. It would be a great challenge for the Jets, who would not have experienced an atmosphere as hostile anywhere else in their history. As it stands, there will be a sprinkling of fans in Newcastle. It can’t compare.

But should the Jets progress, they’ll then face Japan’s fourth ranked team, which could be any of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Kashima Antlers, Consadole Sapporo, FC Tokyo or even Urawa Reds. It all depends on how the J.League table looks at the end of the season and who wins the Emperor’s Cup in early December.

Should the Jets win that they will go into Group E with Korea’s third ranked team, another playoff winner (likely to be Beijing Guoan or Shandong Luneng) and Malaysian champions Johor Darul Tazim.

Other talking points

Just briefly looking at the rest of the draw and the main interest comes from the west side of the draw where Group C and Group D look particularly mouth-watering. Like Group H in the east, Group C in the west has seen the champions from UAE (Al Ain), Saudi Arabia (Al Hilal) and Qatar (Al Duhail) all drawn together, as well as Iranian giants Esteghlal. They are all teams that could conceivably make it to the final, or at least the latter stages of the tournament, and they’re all in one group.

Then there is Group D, with this year’s runners-up Persepolis, Qatari giants Al Sadd (who Persepolis defeated in the semi final), and Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli.

Finally, it deserves to be noted that 2019 sees the return of Iraqi clubs to the AFC Champions League. Not since 2008 have Iraqi clubs participated in the group stage of the ACL, but with Iraqi champions Al Zawraa drawn into Group A, that long wait will end and Iraqi fans can once again look forward to seeing their best clubs on the continent’s biggest stage.

Categories: Opinion | News | Asia

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