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Guangzhou Evergrande celebrate winning the AFC Champions League in 2015. Photo: Xinhua

AFC Champions League debutants Kitchee likely to feel full force of Chinese Super League sides ready to conquer Asia

Veteran Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan leads the Hong Kong champions as they face fellow first-timers Tianjin Quanjian, one of four CSL clubs this year

Hong Kong Premier League champions Kitchee kick off their AFC Champions League bid on Tuesday evening when they travel to northern China to play Tianjin Quanjian.

While the Hong Kong club is making their debut in the continent’s premier competition, they have one player who has experience of the Champions League.

New signing Diego Forlan has played in the Uefa Champions League for Manchester United, Villareal and Atletico Madrid plus he played in the AFC Champions League for Japanese J-League side Cerezo Osaka.

Diego Forlan scores for Kitchee in the Hong Kong Premier League. Photo: Twitter

The 38-year-old scored two goals in the group stage of the 2014 competition and helped his side to the knockout stages.

Kitchee will be hoping that the Uruguayan’s goals can ensure the same fate for them this year, rather than replicating the first Hong Kong team to feature in the competition when Eastern got a solitary point from their six games last year.

It’s not going to be an easy task, though, as Tuesday’s first game (8pm kick-off) shows.

Tianjin, one of four Chinese Super League clubs to feature in the group stages, finished third in their domestic league last season.
Alexandre Pato in action for Tianjin Quanjian. Photo: AFP

While their manager Fabio Cannavaro left to return to Guangzhou Evergrande, new boss Paulo Sousa can call on the same personnel – including the foreign trio of Alexandre Pato, Axel Witsel and Anthony Modeste who will all get their first taste of the group stages after overcoming Philippine side Ceres-Negro in the play-offs.

Tianjin’s other foreigner under the 3-plus-1 rule, which allows for four overseas players as long as one is from a fellow AFC confederation, is South Korean Kwon Kyung-won. The midfielder is a seasoned veteran when it comes to the AFC Champions League, having played in it for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Al-Ahli before moving to Tianjin. He will meet one of his former clubs, K-League champions Jeonbuk who return after serving a ban last year for match fixing, in the group stages as well as Japanese J-League side Kashiwa Reysol.
Shanghai Shenhua coach Wu Jingui holds the Chinese FA Cup after beating city rivals SIPG in the final. Photo: AFP

Disaster struck last season for Shanghai Shenhua when they lost the play-offs to Brisbane Roar, but the Chinese FA Cup winners return to continental competition for the first time since 2011.

Star striker Obafemi Martins will play in his first Asian Champions League, after the Nigerian scored against rivals Shanghai SIPG in both legs of the cup final, while the club have also registered Colombian duo Fredy Guarin and Giovanni Moreno plus South Korea’s Kim Kee-hee.

One notable absentee is Carlos Tevez. The Argentine signing was a disaster on and off the pitch, and he is unlikely to be missed, unlike Demba Ba who also left the club this winter window.

Wu Jingui, who was interim manager last season after the club parted ways with Gus Poyet, is now the permanent appointment and will lead Shenhua when they play Kashima Antlers in Japan on Wednesday (6pm kick-off). Suwon Bluewings of South Korea and Australia’s Sydney FC round out the group.
Shanghai SIPG's Hulk celebrates a goal during the AFC Champions League semi-final against Urawa Red Diamonds. Photo: AFP

Shanghai’s other team, Shanghai SIPG reached the semi-finals last season under Andre Villas-Boas and the hope is that new boss Vitor Pereira will lead them even further this time out.

To do that the incoming Portuguese manager will need good performances from Hulk – last season’s AFC Champions League top scorer – and his fellow Brazilians Oscar and the Chinese Super League’s all time topscoring foreigner and two-time Champions League winner with Guangzhou Evergrande Elkeson. SIPG’s overseas contingent is rounded out by Uzbekistan’s Odil Ahmedov.

Argentina’s Dario Conca, who won the trophy with Guangzhou Evergrande in 2013, missed the Champions League cut.

Pereira’s reward for guiding the team past Thai side Chiangrai United is a visit to J-League side Kawasaki Frontale on Tuesday (6pm kick-off). Melbourne Victory and K-League side Ulsan Hyundai lie ahead in group F.
Guangzhou Evergrande celebrate after winning the Chinese Super League for the seventh time in a row. Photo: AFP

Evergrande, who lost to SIPG in the quarter-finals last year, will be looking to lift their third continental title this season and that is what is expected of returning boss Fabio Cannavaro. The Italian enters his second stint as manager with the visit of Thai side Buriram United on Wednesday (5pm kick off) in a group that also contains J-League outfit Cerezo Osaka and South Korea’s Jeju United.

Alan, Ricardo Goulart and new signing Nemanja Gudelj of Serbia, who arrives from. That means that Colombian striker Jackson Martinez misses out and after a season sidelined through injury he’ll likely move on, but not for the money that Evergrande splashed out on him.

The CSL sides are expected to perform but it will be interesting how the CSL sides keep their four foreigners fresh this season as they can only play three per game domestically.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: debutants Kitchee will look to forlan