Two-time champions, the fourth best team in the world and big name internationals: Hong Kong’s Kitchee face uphill battle in AFC Champions League
We take a look at the other teams in group E that stand in the way of Diego Forlan’s Hong Kong Premier League champions making history
Kitchee learned their fate in the AFC Champions League late on Tuesday evening when the final two members of group E won their play-off games.
Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian and Japanese J-League 1 team Kashiwa Reysol confirmed their places alongside the Hong Kong Premier League champions and Korean K-League winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
But what is in store for Diego Forlan and his Kitchee teammates when they kick off their continental adventure on February 13 – and more importantly do they stand a chance of bettering Eastern’s record of picking up a solitary point last season?
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Korean champions Jeonbuk are AFC Champions League royalty and one of the most successful teams in the post-2002 Champions League era, having won it twice, most recently in 2016, and finished runners-up once – a feat only matched by Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad.
Jeonbuk qualified for the group stages as league champions, their fifth K-League title, romping to the title by nine points.
They have won three of the last four titles and finished runners-up in 2016 making them the strongest team in the group and one that makes up a large contingent of the South Korean national side.
In their first Champions League appearance in 2004 they reached the semi-final and then won it at their next attempt in 2006 beating Syria’s Al-Karamah in the final.
The following year the champions entered at the quarter-final stage where they were knocked out by Urawa Red Diamonds.
Their first appearance after the AFC Champions League expanded to see group winners and runners-up progress in 2009, came a year later. Jeonbuk qualified from their group as runners-up. They beat Adelaide United before losing in the quarters to Al-Shabab.
In 2011, they won their group and went all the way to the final where they were beaten by Qatari side Al-Sadd. Lee Dong Gook, who is still at the club, was named top scorer and best player that year.
Jeonbuk’s worst performance in their history came in 2012 when they went out in the group stage.
For the next three years, they qualified for the knockouts but lost in the round of 16 or quarter-finals.
In 2016 they topped their group, beat Melbourne Victory and hammered Shanghai SIPG on the way to a semi-final with rivals FC Seoul before beating UAE side Al-Ain in the final to win a second title.
Their recent record ends there as they were banned from the 2017 AFC Champions League because of a bribery scandal but they have returned this year along adding new signing 2016 Champions League top scorer Adriano to last season’s top scorer Cristiano to provide the firepower that makes them group favourites.
The Korean K-League kicks off at the beginning of March so Jeonbuk will have only played one AFCCL game before they meet Kitchee.
League titles: 5 (2009, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017)
AFC Champions League appearances before 2018: 9
AFC Champions League best: Winners (2006, 2016)
Did you know?: Jeonbuk became the first team to win the Champions League before they had won their domestic title
Kitchee host Jeonbuk at Hong Kong Stadium on February 20 and travel to the Jeonju World Cup Stadium for the final group game on April 18.
Japanese side Kashiwa Reysol finished fourth in the J-League 1 last season, one point behind third placed Cerezo Osaka. But it was the Osaka side to whom they owe their place in the Champions League, after they beat Yokohama F Marinos in the Emperors Cup – a Marinos win would have seen them qualify for the play-offs at Kashiwa’s expense.
Reysol beat Muangthong United 3-0 in the play-off game to cruise into the group stage and bring Champions League football back to the Hitachi Kashiwa Soccer Stadium – although problems with standing areas may see capacity down from 15,900.
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) 30 January 2018
The team, which started out as Hitachi Soccer Club, can count Brazil international Careca among their former players but they only qualified for the Champions League for the first time in 2012.
The season before they won their first and so far only J-League 1 title, doing so as a newly promoted side and becoming the first Japanese team to win back to back titles in the first and second divisions.
That title also saw them qualify for the 2011 Club World Cup, where they finished fourth.
They have played in the Champions League on three occasions in 2012, 2013 and 2015, reaching the knockouts each time, with their best performance reaching the semis in 2013 where they lost to eventual winners Guangzhou Evergrande.
The J-League kicks off on February 25 and Kashiwa Reysol will have played two AFCCL games and two league games before they first meet Kitchee.
AFC Champions League appearances before 2018: 3
AFC Champions League best: Semi-finals (2013)
Did you know?: They have lost in the knock-out stages to the eventual winners in all three appearances in the AFCCL
Kitchee travel to Kashiwa Reysol on March 6 before hosting the J-League side on March 14 at Hong Kong Stadium.
The Chinese Super League side is little over a decade old and, like Kitchee, this will be their first appearance in the group stage. What they lack in history they make up for in star quality and currently count Brazil’s Alexandre Pato, Belgium international Axel Witsel and in-demand French striker Anthony Modeste among their foreign contingent and a number of China internationals such as Sun Ke, Wang Yongpo and Liu Yiming.
Last season, in their first season in the Chinese top flight, the team promoted as League One champions finished third in the table to secure a Champions League play-off spot under the guidance of Italian World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro. They did this with a 2-1 win away to champions Guangzhou Evergrande on the final day of the season.
Tianjin Quanjian duly despatched Philippine side Ceres-Negros 2-0 thanks to a brace from Anthony Modeste, in new manager Paulo Sousa’s first game in charge.
The main worry for Kitchee will be the weather in Tianjin when the sides meet on the opening day, it was 2 degrees Celcius during the play-off game and temperatures will not be expected to be much warmer in February.
The Chinese Super League kicks off in March so the Tianjin side will only have played their play-off game when they host Kitchee.
League titles: 0
AFC Champions League appearances before 2018: 0
AFC Champions League best: N/A
Did you know?: The club changed their kits ahead of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, first to blue and then to red
Kitchee kick off with a trip to Tianjin on February 13 before welcoming the CSL side to Mong Kok Stadium on April 4.