ACL 2016: Glamour games for Hyundai A-League’s best

Asian football expert @JohnnyDuerden looks ahead to Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC’s ACL group stages, and he says these will be the most high-profile and star-laden matches Hyundai A-League fans will have ever witnessed on the continental stage.

It may not be much of a consolation for Adelaide United fans after their elimination at the hands of Shandong Luneng, but the groups that Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory can look forward to in the 2016 AFC Champions League are mouth-watering to say the least. 

Both Hyundai A-League clubs have strictly East Asian tests with opposition from Japan, China and Korea Republic to deal with.

The best teams rise to the challenge and over the next few weeks we will see how well Victory manages to do so.

Click here for the official ACL site

Click here for the official Victory site

Click here for the official Sydney FC site

Kevin Muscat’s men must deal with Gamba Osaka, cashed-up Shanghai SIPG and Suwon, a club that is familiar to fans down under.

Suwon played two fine games with Brisbane Roar last season, taking four points from the six available.

Roar talisman Thomas Broich on the ball against Suwon Bluewings.

The Bluewings finished second in last season’s K-League but is not the force of last season, losing Seo Jung-jin and Jong Tae-se, the pair who terrorised Brisbane’s defence last year.

Suwon does have Kwon Chang-hoon, however though, not for long.

The 22 year-old attacking midfielder was perhaps the best player at January’s AFC Under-23 Championships and will be moving to Europe, probably the Bundesliga this summer.

He can help Suwon get through the group before he goes.

Gamba Osaka will never be forgotten by Adelaide fans after the two teams met in the 2008 final when the Japanese team was just too good.

And Victory fans will remember that stunning 4-3 loss at Etihad in the ACL group stage in 2008 when super-sub Lucas scored a 90th minute winner.

This version may still have veteran Japan international playmaker Yasuhito Endo but is not quite at that level.

Gamba Osaka pose for a team photo prior to their 2015 ACL semi-final against Guangzhou Evergrande.

It is still one of the best in Asia and was narrowly beaten at the semi-final stage by Guangzhou Evergrande a few months ago.

Takashi Usami is one of the stars of the Kansai club.

The speedy forward went to Bayern Munich as a teenager and after his inevitable return home, has not stopped scoring since and managed 19 as Osaka lost the championship playoff final to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

There is likely to be a second move west before too long.

The unknown force, though not for long, is Shanghai SIPG, one of the biggest spending clubs in the world over the past 12 months.

This is the first appearance in Asia for Sven Goran Eriksson’s men and it is unlikely that it will be the last.

Sven-Goran Eriksson

The former England boss has assembled a $50 million plus strikeforce with Elkeson – the man who scored the winning goal in the final last November for Guangzhou – and former EPL striker with Sunderland, Asamoah Gyan.

The Ghanian goal-getter held the Asian transfer record for a few months after leaving Al Ain for Shanghai last year.

With Dario Conca in the middle and young talent like Wu Lei in the ranks, there is plenty of Champions League experience in the ranks of the debutants.

Sydney’s FC’s group may just edge it in terms of toughness however.

Guangzhou Evergrande, Urawa Reds and Pohang Steelers have six continental titles between them.

Guangzhou Evergrande will face Sydney FC in the Group Stage of the Asian Champions League.

Pohang has three, more than any other team, though the Korea Republic team may be the easiest of the opposition.

The Steelers have a new coach, the untested, at club level, Choi Jin-cheul.

The team has the smallest budget of the big boys in Korea and is made up mostly of young players.

It could be that the 2009 champion will rest and rotate for the long trip to Australia but trips to the Steelyard are never easy.

Guangzhou needs no introduction. The team has played four games against Western Sydney Wanderers in the past eighteen months, some of them a little bad-tempered to say the least (and with a bit of skulduggery too when it comes to transportation to the ground!).

Once again, the Chinese team arrives in Australia as holders and with new signing Jackson Martinez – signed for an astonishing $65m – ready to show what he can do.

Guangzhou striker Jackson Martinez in action for former club Atletico Madrid.

Before the rise of Guangzhou, some said that Urawa Reds were the biggest club in Asia.

The Saitama side won in 2007 and is hungry for more success.

Second in the J.League last season, there is plenty of talent and experience in the shape of Japanese internationals past and present.

These include Tomoaki Makino, Keita Suzuki, Yuki Abe and, a striker known to all Aussie fans, Tadanari Lee, scorer of the spectacular winning goal in the final of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.

Old friends and new, then. It should be spectacular.