After what feels like an eternity, 98 days in fact, the AFC Champions League resumes this week with the first leg of the Quarter Finals to take place in Kashiwa, Riyadh, Jeonju and Tehran.
A lot has changed in the last 98 days, with players coming and going, new coaches, and new seasons commencing in the west.
This all adds to the excitement as there is a sense of the unknown as the eight clubs prepare to be whittled down to just four. With four previous winners remaining, will one of them go on to be crowned kings of Asia again, or will a new name be etched onto the trophy?
Kashiwa Reysol vs Guangzhou Evergrande
After being humiliated by Guangzhou Evergrande in the 2013 semi final (8-1 on aggregate), Kashiwa have their chance for revenge. The highest scoring team in the ACL with 18 goals this campaign, they come into this match in good form with three straight wins in the J.League. Guangzhou, considered by many the favourites to win the ACL this year, are unbeaten in 20 matches in the CSL. Having changed coach since the Round of 16, with Luiz Felipe Scolari replacing Fabio Cannavaro, they have also bolstered their attacking stocks with the signing of Brazilian star Paulinho from Tottenham. Already with the ACL’s leading scorer, Ricardo Goulart, Kashiwa’s defence, the leakiest of the eight remaining teams, will face a tough time keeping the 2013 champions at bay.
PREDICTION: Guangzhou win 2-1
Jeonbuk Hyundai vs Gamba Osaka
The battle of the former champions. Choi Kang-hee’s men are making easy work of the K League Classic, although two losses in the last three have cut their lead to seven points, but haven’t looked as convincing on the continental stage. With Edu, still their leading scorer this season, having departed for China last month, the scoring burden will fall largely on the shoulders of Lee Dong-gook, the ACL’s all-time leading scorer. It’s worth keeping an eye on Lee Jae-sung too, one of the hottest prospects in the K League Classic this season. As for Gamba Osaka, their form over the last two months has been scratchy, with just two wins in their last seven. Takashi Usami is their barometer. The 23-year-old Japan international has 20 goals from 33 games across the J.League and ACL this year.
PREDICTION: 1-1 Draw
Al Hilal vs Lekhwiya
Saudi giants Al Hilal, fresh from winning the season-opening Super Cup in London, welcome back talisman and 2014 AFC Player of the Year Nasser Al-Shamrani from his six-match suspension for spitting. Brazilian Ailton Almeida has replaced his countryman and fan-favourite Thiago Neves, who departed for Al Jazira in the off-season. Still hurting after losing in the final last season, Al Hilal is desperate to atone and go all the way this year. Standing in their way is Qatari side Lekhwiya, weakened by the absence of Slovakian midfielder Vladamir Weiss, one of their leading scorers last season. Whereas Al Hilal have already started their new season, the Qataris are still pre-season and that could prove crucial in the first leg.
PREDICTION: Al Hilal win 3-0
Naft Tehran vs Al Ahli
Iranian side Naft Tehran has surprised everyone by making it this far in what is their maiden AFC Champions League campaign. After surviving the group stage they caused a boilover in the Round of 16 when they knocked off Saudi Arabian side Al Ahli. Their recent league form, however, doesn’t paint such a rosy picture – without a win in their first four games. Cameroon striker Aloys Nong, who has spent the bulk of his career playing in Belgium, has come in to bolster their attack while Brazilian Carlos Santos has replaced his countryman Leonardo Padovani in defence. Al Ahli has also been busy over the off-season, bringing in former Benfica striker Lima. Already with Brazilian international Everton Ribeiro and dangerous UAE striker Ahmed Khalil, they fired a warning shot in their opening Arabian Gulf League match last week, thumping Al Fujairah 8-1.
PREDICTION: Al Ahli win 2-0