AFC Champions League champions Guangzhou Evergrande have to wait just a little longer to find out who they will begin the defence of their title against after Thursday’s draw for the Group Stage of next year’s flagship club competition pooled the Chinese giants with the winners of East Playoff 1 and the yet to be determined third team from Japan.
While the 2015 AFC Club of the Year must wait until February 9 and the outcome of the playoff between 2010 ACL champions Pohang Steelers and the winners of the preliminary stage match between Hanoi T&T and Kitchee of Hong Kong, with the identity of their Japanese opponents known on January 1 following the Emperor’s Cup final, Guangzhou know they face Australia opposition in the Group Stage for the third successive tournament.
Having taken on Melbourne Victory in 2014 and the then defending champions Western Sydney Wanderers the following year, the five-time Chinese Super League champions are up against Sydney FC, who are appearing in the ACL for the first time since 2011.
Melbourne Victory will be making their fifth appearance in Asia’s premier competition with the A-League double winners also playing the waiting game as to who will join them, and Korea Republic’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings, in Group G, with Japan’s second team and the winner of East Playoff 4, which could be either Shanghai SIPG, Thailand’s Muangthong United, or AFC Cup Holders Johor Darul Ta’zim.
With Al Ahli having a disappointing domestic season, last year’s runners-up failed to qualifying following an extremely competitive Arabian Gulf League season, with the UAE represented by inaugural AFC Champions League winners Al Ain and Al Nasr.
Al AIn are in Group D with Saudi giants Al Ahli, Nasaf of Uzbekistan, and the victorious side in the Playoff match between Naft Tehran – who eliminated Al Ahli in the Round of 16 as the Iranians made it to the last eight in their debut ACL campaign – and Qatari side El Jaish, while Al Nasr have Iranians Foolad Mobarakeh Sepahan, Lokomotiv, and the winner of the the Playoff between Al Ahli’s Jeddah rivals and two-time ACL champions Al Ittihad and Jordan’s Al Wehdat for company in Group A.
The UAE duo could be joined in the Group Stage by compatriots Al Jazira and Al Shabab, if they can emerge victorious from their respective Playoffs against former champions Al Sadd of Qatar and Bunyodkor, who made the Knockout Stage in their first seven continental campaigns before bowing out at the Group Stage of this year’s competition.
Al Sadd battled their way from the Playoffs to go onto defeat Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the 2011 final, and the K League Classic champions, who were the first team from the Korea Republic to win the ACL in 2007, take on China’s Jiangsu Sainty, Vietnam champions Becamex Binh Duoung, and the winners of East Playoff 2 in what is their seventh consecutive appearance in the tournament.
Binh Duong is one of only two South East Asian clubs to be assured of their place in the Group Stage of the ACL, with the other team being tournament regulars Buriram United, the recently-crowned Thailand Premier League champions who take on J.League Championship winners Sanfrecce Hiroshima, FC Seoul – runner-up to Guangzhou Evergrande in 2013 – and the winner of Playoff East 3 in Group F.
1.Foolad Mobarakeh Sepahan (IRN)
2. Al Nasr (UAE)
3. Lokomotiv (UZB)
4. Al Ittihad (KSA) or Al Wehdat (JOR)
1. Al Nassr (KSA)
2. Zobahan (IRN)
4. Bunyodkor (UZB) v Al Shabab (UAE)
1. Pakhtakor (UZB)
2. Al Hilal (KSA)
3. Tractorsazi Tabriz (IRN)
4. Al Jazira (UAE) or Al Sadd (QAT)
1. Al Ain (UAE)
2. Nasaf (UZB)
3. Al Ahli (KSA)
4. Naft Tehran (IRN) or El Jaish (QAT)
1. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (KOR)
2. Jiangsu Sainty (CHN)
3. Becamex Binh Duong (VIE)
4. Winner Playoff 2
1. Sanfrecce Hiroshima (JPN)
2. FC Seoul (KOR)
3. Buriram United (THA)
4. Winner Playoff 3
1. Melbourne Victory (AUS)
2. Japan 2nd Club (JPN)
3. Suwon Samsung Bluewings (KOR)
4. Winner Playoff 4
1. Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN)
2. Sydney FC (AUS)
3. Japan 3rd Club (JPN)
4. Winner Playoff East 1
AFC Champions League 2016 Preliminary Stage & Playoff Schedule
Playoff Stage – West (February 9, 2016)
Al Ittihad (KSA) v Al Wehdat (JOR)
Naft Tehran (IRN) v El Jaish (QAT)
Bunyodkor (UZB) v Al Shabab (UAE)
Al Jazira (UAE) v Al Sadd (QAT)
Preliminary Stage 1 – East (January 27, 2016)
Kitchee (HKG – Bye
Yangon United (MYA) – Bye
Mohun Bagan (IND) v Tampines Rovers (SIN)
Johor Darul Ta’zim (MAS) – Bye
Preliminary Stage 2 – East (February 2, 2016)
Hanoi T&T (VIE) v Kitchee (HKG)
Thailand 3rd club v Yangon United (MYA)
Shandong Luneng (CHN) v Winner of Mohun Bagan (IND) v Tampines Rovers (SIN)
Muangthong United (THA) v Johor Darul Ta’zim (MAS)
Playoff Stage – East (February 9, 2016)
Pohang Steelers (KOR) v Winner of Hanoi T&T (VIE) v Kitchee (HKG)
Japan 4th club v Winner of Thailand 3rd club v Yangon United (MYA)
Adelaide United (AUS) v Shandong Luneng (CHN) or Winner of Mohun Bagan (IND) v Tampines Rovers (SIN)
Shanghai SIPG (CHN) v Winner of Muangthong United (THA) v Johor Darul Ta’zim (MAS)