Preview: Last AFC Champions League edition demands new winner
The AFC Champions League kicks off on September 18.
The cream of Asia’s crop will begin their quest to scale the Continent’s peak next week when the AFC Champions League™ 2023/24 Group Stage gets underway for one last time before the 2024/25 season’s eagerly anticipated unveiling of a new portfolio of competitions.
The 21st and final edition of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC)’s flagship club competition will run from September 2023 to May 2024, with 40 participating clubs – divided into 10 groups during last month’s draw – from 21 Member Associations.
There will be eight new faces on show – the greatest number of debutants since 11 in 2021 – as the tournament shifts to an autumn-spring schedule, with Group Stage matches reverting to a home-and-away basis for the first time since 2020.
For the first time in an AFC club competition, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system will be implemented from the Group Stage, expanding from the 2022 edition which featured VAR from the Round of 16 onwards.
The first match of the 2023/24 season takes place in western India on September 18, where Mumbai City FC – runners-up in their group last year on their tournament debut – welcome Nassaji Mazandaran FC of the Islamic Republic of Iran in their Group D opener. It represents a maiden AFC Champions League™ encounter for Nassaji, who qualified by winning the 2021/22 Hazfi Cup – their first ever major trophy. Hailing from Qa’em Shahr, Nassaji were promoted to the Iran Pro League for the first time in 2019 and are the 13th Iranian club in tournament history. This fixture will kick off at 7.30pm at the Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex, which hosted nine matches during the AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022™.
The other Group D tie has Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal SFC begin their 18th AFC Champions League™ campaign against Navbahor of Uzbekistan at the Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh at 9pm. Beaten finalists in 2022, Al Hilal are seeking a historic fifth Continental club crown, with their opponents on the opposite end of the spectrum.
The 2022 Uzbekistan Super League runners-up became the last of the eight debuting clubs to advance to the Group Stage, making them the 159th different club in AFC Champions League™ history; the Namangan-based outfit’s involvement also means that there are four Uzbek clubs in an edition for only the third time, after 2015 and 2016.
History will be made in Group B when Al Faisaly take to the pitch on September 18 at 7pm at the Amman International Stadium. Having thrice faltered in the qualifying stages, the 2022 Jordanian Pro League champions – their record-extending 35th title – have earned a direct Group Stage berth this time and become the second Jordanian club to play in the AFC Champions League™ after Al Wehdat (2021, 2022). Two-time AFC Cup™ winners, Al Faisaly face 2022 Uzbekistan Cup winners FC Nasaf, who are making their sixth appearance and will be aiming to build on their Round of 16 exit in 2022, which was also the first time they had advanced to the Knockout Stage.
Over at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, Al Sadd are looking to atone for Group Stage exits in the past two editions in their 16th appearance. The 16-time Qatar Stars League champions, whose sole AFC Champions League™ triumph came in 2011, host United Arab Emirates’ Sharjah FC at 9pm. The latter are involved for a fifth time and the 2022/23 UAE President’s Cup winners – their second in a row and joint-record 10th – had to win two qualifying ties to make the Group Stage. Sharjah’s best performance came during their debut in 2004, when they reached the Quarter-finals.
Sealing their ninth Saudi Professional League title after a 14-year-long wait this May ensured Al Ittihad’s return to the AFC Champions League™ – their 12th participation and first since 2019. The Jeddah-based side’s triumph on their debut in 2004 was followed by a successful defence in 2005, making them the only club to win back-to-back AFC Champions League titles. Al Ittihad start their Group C journey against Uzbekistan’s AGMK FC, who made their debut in 2021 and won two qualifying matches to book their Group Stage slot this time. Kick-off is at 7pm on September 18 at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah.
The other Group C encounter finds Air Force Club aiming to progress beyond the Group Stage for the first time on their sixth appearance. The 2022/23 Iraqi Premier League runners-up kick off their home clash at 7pm against IR Iran’s Sepahan SC at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil; the visiting side, AFC Champions League™ runners-up in 2007, are making their 14th appearance.
No club has participated in more editions of the AFC Champions League™ than Pakhtakor – 18; joint-most with Al Hilal – and the record 15-time Uzbekistan Super League champions will eye a breakthrough first Continental title, having twice reached the Semi-finals (2004, 2005).
The Tashkent-based outfit meet Al Ain FC for the third time in the Group Stage (2010, 2015) and the Group A encounter is scheduled for 7pm at the Bunyodkor Stadium on September 19. Al Ain’s place in history is assured as the inaugural champions in 2003 and the 2021/22 United Arab Emirates Pro League winners – a record 14th triumph – are no pushovers either, with this edition being their 16th qualification.
Ahal FC made their tournament bow in 2022 and they return for a second crack as Turkmenistan Higher League champions, having broken Altyn Asyr FC’s eight-year stranglehold to win their first ever league title. The Multi-Functional Stadium in Ashgabat will be the stage for the fixture against debutants Al Fayha FC, the Saudi Arabian club from Al Majma’ah who denied Al Hilal a domestic double with victory in the 2021/22 King’s Cup; kick-off is at 9pm.
FC Istiklol have qualified for a third time in as many editions and the 11-time Tajikistan Higher League champions will seek to build on their Round of 16 run from their debut in 2021. The only Tajik side to ever feature in the AFC Champions League™ kick off their Group E quest at 9pm on September 19 at the Republican Central Stadium in Dushanbe against record-breaking opposition. Al Duhail SC’s debut came in 2012 and their 12th successive appearance eclipses the previous record of 11 jointly held by the trio of Pakhtakor (2003-2013), Al Hilal (2009-2019) and Guangzhou Evergrande (2012-2022). The 2022/23 Qatar Stars League champions, who reached the Semi-finals in 2022, will surely be targeting a first ever Final here.
The other Group E match between Persepolis FC and Al Nassr, set for 9.30pm at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, will mark the first time that a Saudi Arabian club will play in IR Iran since the very same two clubs met each other at the same venue in April 2015, following the recent groundbreaking agreement between the two Member Associations. Persepolis, twice runners-up in 2018 and 2020, are making their 11th AFC Champions League™ appearance while Al Nassr, semi-finalists in 2020 and 2021, won their Playoff to seal their seventh qualification.
The East region commences on September 19 with the Group G showdown between Yokohama F. Marinos of Japan and Incheon United FC from the Korea Republic at 7pm at the Yokohama International Stadium. The hosts won their seventh J1 League title in 2022 and are appearing for the sixth time, with two Round of 16 finishes (2020, 2022) their best in the competition. Meanwhile, Incheon’s extra-time win in the Playoff means that they will make their AFC Champions League™ debut and become the 13th Korean club to ever play in the tournament.
Shandong Taishan’s 11th involvement sees them draw level with Evergrande for China PR clubs and they will travel to Manila for their tie with Kaya FC-Iloilo. Taishan reached the Quarter-finals in 2005 and 2016, while Kaya – who made their debut in 2021 – are making their second appearance, having won their first Philippines Football League trophy in 2022/23 to qualify directly. Kick-off is at 8pm at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex.
A memorable 2022 campaign saw Ulsan Hyundai FC end a seven-year drought to lift their third league crown and enter this edition as K League 1 champions in Group I. The two-time AFC Champions League™ winners (2012, 2020) mark their 11th appearance by welcoming BG Pathum United of Thailand to the Ulsan Munsu Stadium on September 19, with kick-off at 7pm. The latter, making a third consecutive appearance after debuting in 2021, won their Playoff to qualify and will aim to better their 2022 Quarter-final finish.
The only Malaysian side to have ever qualified for the AFC Champions League™, Johor Darul Ta’zim begin their fourth campaign at home with kick-off at 8pm at the Sultan Ibrahim Stadium. On the cusp of a 10th straight Malaysia Super League title, they will aim to build on a breakthrough Round of 16 appearance last year and their first test comes in the form of Kawasaki Frontale. The 2022 J1 League runners-up, who have thrice made it to the last eight (2007, 2009, 2019), have qualified for a 10th time.
Semi-finalists in 2022, two-time champions (2006, 2016) Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC embark on their Group F campaign – their 16th in the AFC Champions League™ – on September 20 at 7pm at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium when Kitchee SC come calling. The 2022/23 Hong Kong Premier League winners are involved for a fourth time and reached the Round of 16 in 2022 in their best finish to date.
The Lion City Sailors are back again after debuting in 2022 and the Singapore Premier League club face fellow ASEAN side Bangkok United at the Jalan Besar Stadium at 8pm. The latter, who finished second in the 2022/23 Thai League 1, are also making their second appearance after their first came in 2007 as Bangkok University FC. This gap is the second-longest between appearances for a club in the AFC Champions League™ between any two editions – joint-most with Sharjah FC (2004-2020) and behind Vietnam’s Hoàng Anh Gia Lai (2005-2022).
Staying with Southeast Asia, Buriram United are set for their eighth involvement and their first since 2019 on September 20 with their first Group H clash at 5pm at the Buriram Stadium. They won a record ninth Thai League 1 crown in 2022/23 and two Round of 16 finishes (2013, 2018) remain their best achievements in the AFC Champions League™. China’s Zhejiang FC, who make their second appearance after debuting in 2011 as Hangzhou Greentown, will be their opponents after triumphing in the Playoffs to qualify.
Australia’s sole representative in this edition is Melbourne City FC, the 2022/23 A-League Men Premiers whose debut came last year. The Melbourne Rectangular Stadium will entertain Japanese club Ventforet Kofu, whose maiden qualification is the stuff of fairytales. The J2 League side slayed several giants enroute to winning the 2022 Emperor’s Cup and are the third second-division club after Tokyo Verdy 1969 (2006, Japan) and Jeonnam Dragons (2022, Korea Republic) to feature in the AFC Champions League™. Kofu are also the first club to make their continental debut while outside the top tier of their domestic league and become the 16th Japanese club in tournament history – no other Member Association has more, with China PR also on 16. Kick-off is at 8pm.
Group J’s quartet is the final one to see action, with Urawa Red Diamonds’ ambitions to defend their crown on show with their first test on September 20. The record three-time AFC Champions League™ winners cruised through their Playoff to qualify for a ninth time and the Japanese side will meet Wuhan Three Towns FC at the Wuhan Sports Center at 8pm. The home club’s debut is the latest milestone in a meteoric rise that has seen them go from the fourth division in 2018, to winning the Chinese Super League title in their first top-flight season in 2022.
Hanoi FC will savour their first taste of the AFC Champions League™ after failing to qualify in five different previous attempts and the 2022 V.League 1 champions’ group opener is slated for 7pm at the My Dinh Stadium. Korea Republic’s Pohang Steelers are the visitors and making their ninth appearance; the 2009 champions missed out on the previous edition and were beaten finalists in 2021.