The biggest names to watch in this season’s Asian Champions League, led by Ronaldo

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These are the superstars to watch in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League.

The AFC Champions League kicks off later this month, with Isuzu UTE A-League premiers Melbourne City Australia’s sole representative.

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This season’s competition is stacked with superstars across Asia, especially in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s spending spree, as Japanese giants Urawa Reds try to defend their title.

Unfortunately for Australian fans, teams from the West and East Zones are kept apart until the final, like when Western Sydney Wanderers stunned Al-Hilal in the 2014 decider. So there will be no Saudi Arabian clubs Down Under – at least, until a potential final.

Here are the biggest names playing in the Champions League this season.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Al Nassr)

Cristiano Ronaldo is the face of Al Nassr, who booked their spot in the group stage alongside Persepolis, Al Duhail and FC Istiklol in Group E via the play-offs.

A five-time Ballon d’Or recipient and five-time UEFA Champions League winner, Ronaldo stunned the football world when he swapped Manchester United for Saudi Arabia in January in a deal reportedly worth €200million ($A336.3m) per year – the highest football salary in history.

The 38-year-old’s arrival has opened the floodgates for the Saudi Pro League.

Neymar (Al Hilal)

The centrepiece of Al Hilal’s spending spree is Neymar – Brazil’s all-time leading goalscorer who left Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain in favour of the most successful team in the history of the AFC Champions League.

He is the most expensive transfer in the Saudi Pro League’s history – €90m ($A151m), and the former Barcelona star brings pedigree, goals and swagger to King Fahd International Stadium, having already won the UEFA Champions League as well as numerous other domestic honours like LaLiga and Ligue 1.

Karim Benzema (Al Ittihad)

Defending Saudi Pro League champions Al Ittihad are headlined by the reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema.

A five-time UEFA Champions League winner to go with four LaLiga titles among countless other honours at Real Madrid, the superstar French striker sensationally quit the European powerhouse for Al Ittihad in June which is reportedly earning him €200m ($A336.3m) over two seasons.

Benzema – second on Madrid’s all-time leading goalscorers list behind Cristiano Ronaldo – was immediately handed the armband at Al Ittihad, though his start to life has been far from straightforward amid reports of a rift with new head coach Nuno Espirito Santo.

Sadio Mane (Al Nassr)

After one season at Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, former Liverpool star Sadio Mane made the move to Al Nassr.

The two-time African Footballer of the Year won the Bundesliga with Bayern last term, having teamed up with Mohamed Salah and Robert Firmino to win the Champions League and Premier League at Liverpool.

Aleksandar Mitrovic (Al Hilal)

He is Serbia’s all-time leading goalscorer and now teammates with Neymar at Al Hilal.

Mitrovic was a talisman for Fulham during his time with the London club, breaking the record for the highest scoring English league season in the current 46-game format by scoring 43 goals during the 2021-22 campaign as the team were promoted to the Premier League.

Al Hilal needed a £50m ($A97.9m) bid to prise the Serbian star from England.

N’Golo Kante (Al Ittihad)

Kante is the smiling assassin who has won silverware wherever he has been.

From Leicester City and Chelsea, to France. The midfield star has won it all.

He is a FIFA Men’s World Cup, UEFA Champions League and Premier League winner.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Al Hilal)

Previously linked with the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, PSG and Inter, Al Hilal forked out €40m ($A67m) to lure Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio.

The Serbia international brings goals and creativity to Al Hilal.

Kalidou Koulibaly (Al Hilal)

Koulibaly was a fan favourite at Napoli – he was the face of the city and the team after winning the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana before Chelsea came calling in 2021-22.

But after just one season at Stamford Bridge, the towering Senegal defender and Africa Cup of Nations champion is now in Saudi Arabia with Neymar and Co.

Marcelo Brozovic (Al Nassr)

The silky-skilled Croatian played in last season’s UEFA Champions League final for Inter.

Brozovic had spent eight successful years with the Nerazzurri, who needed to sell the midfielder to help fund their transfer activity and had initially rejected an offer from Al Nassr.

One of Serie A’s premier midfielders, he was part of the Croatia side that reached the 2018 World Cup final.

Ruben Neves (Al Hilal)

His arrival in Saudi Arabia was arguably the biggest surprise.

At the peak of his powers aged 26, many were left angered when Portugal midfielder Ruben Neves opted to leave Wolves and Europe in a £46m ($A90m) transfer having previously attracted interest from the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United.

Fabinho (Al Ittihad)

Al Ittihad raided Liverpool to sign Fabinho for a reported £40m ($A78m).

He was a favourite of Jurgen Klopp’s at Liverpool – the versatile Brazil international at the heart of their midfield that claimed Premier League, Champions League and other honours.

Aymeric Laporte (Al Nassr)

Al Nassr needed to bolster their defence and they did with one of Europe’s best.

While he fell out of favour under Pep Guardiola last season, Laporte was still part of the Manchester City team that won the treble.

The £26.3million ($A51m) deal made him the most expensive defender in Saudi Arabia’s top flight.

Malcom (Al Hilal)

Remember Malcom? He spent one season playing alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona who spent more than €40m ($A67m) to sign him back in 2018-19.

In that season Barca won LaLiga. After that, he flourished at Russian giants Zenit before making the big switch to Saudi Arabia.

Otavio (Al Nassr)

The signing of Otavio caused a splash.

After activating his €60m ($A101m) release clause, the Portuguese midfielder became both the most expensive player in the Saudi club’s history and Porto’s highest ever sale.

Otavio (R)
Yassine ‘Bono’ Bounou (Al Hilal)

Bono established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe thanks to exploits with LaLiga side Sevilla and at the World Cup with Morocco.

He won two UEFA Europa League titles in Seville and is a 2023 Ballon d’Or nominee, having been linked with Real Madrid before joining Al Hilal.

Alex Telles (Al Nassr)

The 12-time Brazil international moved to Manchester United three years ago but after an impressive first season, he was loaned out to Sevilla where he won the Europa League.

A former Galatasaray, Inter and Porto full-back, Alex Telles brings experience and an attacking mindset to Al Nassr.

Jota (Al Ittihad)

A Benfica graduate, Jota was lured to Celtic by Australian legend Ange Postecoglou in 2021-22.

Jota went on to become an instant favourite in Glasgow, where he won back-to-back Scottish Premierships and the treble last season.

Seko Fofana (Al Nassr)

The Ivory Coast international was part of Lens’ fairytale 2022-23 season in which the Ligue 1 club qualifier for the UEFA Champions League.

A former Manchester City midfielder, Fofana was previously linked with Arsenal, Newcastle United and PSG and despite the prospect of playing in Europe’s premier club competition with Lens, he opted to join Ronaldo at Al Nassr.

Bafetimbi Gomis (Kawasaki Frontale)

The 38-year-old previously played for historic French club Lyon, where he was lethal across five years.

He also spent four years at Al Hilal, establishing himself as a cult hero after winning two Champions League and two Saudi Pro League trophies.

Leandro Damiao (Kawasaki Frontale)

For years, Damiao had been tipped to move to the Premier League but it never happened.

Instead, the 17-time Brazil international has starred for Internacional, Santos, Cruzeiro and Flamengo in his homeland.

The 34-year-old has called Japan home since 2019, winning a pair of J1 League titles, the 2021 Golden Boot and 2021 MVP award.

Jorge Jesus (Al Hilal manager)

On the sidelines, Al Hilal boast legendary Portuguese head coach Jorge Jesus.

The 69-year-old, who won the Copa Libertadores with Flamengo in 2019 and led Benfica to consecutive UEFA Europa League finals in 2013 and 2014, is back at Al Hilal after his stint in 2018-19.

Hernan Crespo (Al Duhail)

Qatari Stars League champions Al Duhail are back in the Champions League, having reached the semi-finals last season and they have a familiar face in the dugout.

Legendary striker Hernan Crespo, who played for Argentina, Chelsea, Inter, Milan, Lazio and Parma and was once the world’s most expensive player, guided Al Duhail to the treble in his first season last term.