For much of the past decade, famous players such as James Rodriguez, Odion Ighalo and Santo Cazorla would have been expected to be playing in the Asian Champions League for cashed-up Chinese clubs. But ahead of Thursday’s kick-off, most of the big names are to be found in the western half of the continent. After just one championship win from West Asian teams from 2005 to 2018, Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia have won two of the past three continental titles and are favourites once more especially as clubs from China, who spent big in the previous decade, struggle financially. “Al-Hilal is a great club with a history of winning trophies and is the Asian champion,” Ighalo, who arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2021 from Manchester United, said. “There are great players here and this is a team that always wants to win at home and abroad.” The Nigerian international plays alongside Moussa Marega and Matheus Pereira, signed last year from FC Porto in Portugal and West Bromwich Albion of the English Championship respectively, as well as several Saudi Arabian internationals. The chances of Al Hilal, as well as fellow Saudi Pro League clubs Al Shabab, Al Taawoun and Al Faisaly, have improved as all five groups in the western half are being hosted this month in Saudi Arabia to reduce travel. Colombia’s Rodriguez joined Al Rayyan of Qatar from Everton in September, and despite the team struggling in the league, the former Real Madrid and Bayern Munich star has scored four in 12 games. Qatar’s challenge is expected to come from Al Sadd, continental champions in 2011, and led by ex-Arsenal forward Santi Cazorla as well as Al Duhail, who appointed former Argentine international Hernan Crespo as coach in March. “The club completed all the procedures to sign the new head coach Hernan Crespo who will start preparing the team to take part in the AFC Champions League,” the club said in a statement. Injured Kitchee defender Dani Cancela to miss Asian Champions League matches Iran’s chances of winning the tournament for the first time have been impacted, with the country’s two biggest clubs Persepolis and Esteghlal expelled in January for failing to meet the necessary criteria to take part. The eastern zone of the Champions League – the tournament is divided into two geographic zones until the final – kicks off on April 15. Thailand will host three of the East Asia groups, while Vietnam and Malaysia will host one each. Chinese teams are struggling financially as well as with scheduling commitments, which has led to Changchun Yatai withdrawing and Guangzhou FC, Shanghai Port and Shandong sending weakened teams. Shanghai are in Group J, alongside Hong Kong’s sole entrant Kitchee SC, Thailand’s Chiangrai United, and Vissel Kobe from Japan, who secured their place after beating Melbourne Victory in a play-off. South Korea and Japan are the best hopes from the east, with four representatives each. Ulsan Hyundai Horangi and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who have won two titles each, expect to feature with Vissel Kobe, Kawasaki Frontale and Yokohama F Marinos spearheading Japan’s challenge. Sydney FC and Melbourne City have the tough task of improving on Australia’s poor record in the competition, which has seen only one team progressing past the group stage since 2016.