13 Feb 2018 - 0:00
Al Sadd, Al Rayyan begin ACL campaign
DOHA: Qatari football giants Al Rayyan and Al Sadd will kick off their 2018 AFC Champions League Group D campaign today.
Al Rayyan will lock horns with Iran’s Esteghlal at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium while Al Sadd and Al Wasl of the United Arab Emirates will square off for the first time in Group C the League at Zabeel Stadium.
The Group D encounter will start Al Rayyan’s eighth campaign in the competition.
Al Rayyan scored eight goals in three home games last year, while one of their best performances came in a 3-1 home victory over Esteghlal’s city rivals Persepolis when star man Rodrigo Tabata netted twice.
Esteghlal did manage to make it out of the group stage last year, before a 6-1 defeat to Al Ain in the second leg of the Round of 16 brought their continental dream to an abrupt halt.
The Tehran side has played Al Rayyan six times in the past and have come out on top on four occasions, with the last time being a 2-1 victory in the 2014 group stage.
Meanwhile, Al Sadd’s opponents have only ever appeared in the competition once before now, back in 2008, when they were eliminated at the group stage.
A runners-up finish in the 2017 UAE Pro League secured a return to the competition a decade after their continental debut and Al Wasl will now have their sights on advancing beyond the group stage at the second attempt.
Having missed out on AFC Champions League qualification after falling at the play-off round in the previous two years, 2011 winners Al Sadd return for the first time since reaching the last 16 in 2015.
Barca legend Xavi Hernandez-led side remains the last team from West Asia to win the competition, but have won just three of their past 12 games on the continent. Expectation will be high this year, though, as Spanish FIFA World Cup winner prepares to make his debut on the continent.
In other matches today, two-time AFC Champions League winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors return to continental action for the first time since winning the title in 2016 when they host Kashiwa Reysol in Group E.
The reigning K-League Classic champions defeated Al Ain in the 2016 final to add to the title they won in 2006, but the Asian powerhouse have a dismal record against Kashiwa, having drawn one and lost five of their six encounters.
Jeonbuk acquired firepower in Brazilian striker Adriano when they brought the former FC Seoul man in ahead of the 2018 group stage. The forward’s last appearance in the competition yielded a record-equaling 13 goals as the side from the Korea Republic capital progressed to the semi-finals.
The visitors are making their first appearance in the competition since advancing to the 2015 quarter-finals, while they also reached the semi-finals in 2013. On both occasions the J.League side fell to eventual champions Guangzhou Evergrande.
While boasting an excellent record against Jeonbuk, Kashiwa have won just once in their previous seven AFC Champions League away games, although that was on their last trip to Korea when they defeated Suwon Samsung Bluewings at the 2015 last 16 stage.
In Group F, two of the most impressive teams in last year’s Champions League face off in as Kawasaki Frontale host Shanghai SIPG.
Hosts Kawasaki remained unbeaten on their march to the 2017 quarter-finals before exiting after a second leg defeat to eventual winners Urawa Red Diamonds.
The Japanese side went on to win their maiden J.League title at the end of last year and will return as one of the tournament favourites ahead of one of the most eagerly awaited clashes of the first round of matches.
Shanghai SIPG did one better than Kawasaki last year, but also fell to Urawa following a narrow defeat in the semi-finals, which had marked a best-ever performance on the continent for the side.
Hulk was undoubtedly the star man last year, netting in nine successive games and creating seven goals for his teammates – a record matched only by Kawasaki’s Kengo Nakamura.