China’s mega-rich clubs get chance to show winter transfer splurge was worth it as Asian Champions League kicks off
Star names such as Jackson Martinez and Alex Teixeira will be in action as continental competition kicks off
Chinese clubs have been making headlines around the world by spending huge amounts of money to attract big-name stars, but with the Asian Champions League starting on Tuesday, teams from Australia, Japan and South Korea have a chance to redress the balance.
In the winter transfer window, the Chinese Super League has spent almost US$300 million on players, more than the English Premier League, traditionally the richest in the world.
Guangzhou Evergrande, the defending Asian Champions League winners, spent over US$40 million to acquire Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid. Jiangsu Suning paid almost US$100 million for Brazilian stars Ramires from Chelsea and Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk, while Shanghai SIPG shelled out US$50 million to acquire Elkeson and Asamoah Gyan.
Guangzhou have won two of the last three Asian Champions League tournaments, while the other Chinese clubs have struggled. It remains to be seen if the recent investments make a difference for clubs like Jiangsu, Shanghai and Shandong Luneng.
Guangzhou remain favourites to win the title, despite being placed in a group with two former winners, Pohang Steelers of South Korea and Japan’s Urawa Reds, as well as Sydney FC from Australia.
“It is a tough group but the Asian Champions League is a tough competition,” Guangzhou president Liu Yongzhou said.
“For Guangzhou, we have won the trophy two times now and it is important for the club to win it again and make it three. We will do everything we can to defend the trophy we won.”
If coach Luiz Felipe Scolari leads the team to a third title, Guangzhou will equal the number of ACL championships won by Pohang Steelers, the most successful club in Asian history.
The South Korean club has a fraction of the spending power of Guangzhou, but received some good news last week when the Asian Football Confederation ruled that the Steelers-Evergrande match at Guangzhou’s Tianhe Stadium would be played behind closed doors as punishment for the Chinese team breaching marketing and media regulations during the 2015 ACL final against Al Ahli of Dubai.
“It is a hard game for the first in the Asian Champions League,” Pohang coach Choi Jin-cheul said. “Guangzhou is the champion and have many good players but we have a good record and are looking to perform well in the competition.”
Australia’s two biggest clubs, Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory, will be looking to progress to the knockout stage of the continental competition for the first time after failing to do so in six previous attempts between them.
Sydney coach Graham Arnold is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Western Sydney Wanderers, who surprisingly won the title in 2014.
“No doubt it is a very difficult group,” Arnold said at a news conference in Sydney last week. “Guangzhou’s budget is 40 times more than ours, Pohang’s is 30 times and Urawa is 20 times. But Western Sydney showed it can be done.”
Melbourne, who exited in the group stage in 2015, have been drawn in a group with Shanghai SIPG, the 2015 Chinese Super League runners-up; two-time Asian champions Suwon Bluewings of South Korea; and 2008 ACL champions Gamba Osaka of Japan.
“It’s a tall order,” Melbourne boss Kevin Muscat said. “But it’s a challenge we will take on head on. It’s where we wanted to be. In our last campaign, it got to this time of the season and we relished the opportunity to play on this world stage.”
The 32 teams are split into two geographic zones until the final. Since 2005, only one west Asian team, Al Sadd of Qatar in 2011, has lifted the trophy.
Al Ain, the reigning United Arab Emirates league champions, will be the favourite in the west region after Al Ahli failed to qualify for the 2016 tournament. Another team to watch, Lekhwiya, has won four of the last five domestic titles in Qatar, but has yet to progress past the last eight in the ACL.
Saudi giants Al Hilal and Al Ittihad will be searching for a third title to add to the two they’ve each won, while Iran is still looking for a first victory in the competition.
The games between the Saudi and Iranian clubs have been moved to the end of the group stage after Riyadh demanded the matches be moved to a third country amid worsening relations between the nations. The AFC is hoping that a political settlement can be reached soon.