This week sees the first round of the Group Stages of the 2016 ACL and for many of the teams it’s that much awaited first competitive match of the season and the chance to showcase the new additions to the squad. The first round has a couple of matches which even at this early stage could go a long way to deciding who gets out the group and who gets to “focus on the domestic scene”.
Jeonbuk v FC Tokyo (7pm Tuesday 23rd)
Jeonbuk start their 2016 campaign by hosting FC Tokyo. All eyes will be on Jeonbuk’s new signings and especially Kim Shin Wook as fans and media alike will be hoping he can repeat his success with Ulsan in the green of Jeonbuk. As well as watching the new signings attention will also turn to the hole in defence after Kim Kee Hee’s recent switch to the Chinese Super League and just how they cope without him. This time last year Jeonbuk started their campaign with a 0-0 draw against eventual table-toppers Kashiwa Reysol. They had the ball in the net twice that night with both ruled offside, they really cannot afford a repeat of that scoreline this year as nobody really knows how strong Jiangsu will be in this group.
Prediction – A winning debut for ‘The Wookie’ – Jeonbuk 1 FC Tokyo 0
Buriram United v FC Seoul (8pm Tuesday 23rd)
Like Jeonbuk, FC Seoul have also improved their squad significantly and are a vastly different team from that which meekly exited last year’s tournament to Gamba Osaka. The obvious name to look out for is returning legend Dejan who many are looking at to spur them on to silverware this season. Much has been made of the fact that he is now 2 years older than the Dejan that left but he did manage to score in both matches against Suwon Bluewings in last year’s ACL so maybe he still has it. In Buriram, Seoul face a team who are often underestimated by Korean football fans and they will have to play at the top of their game to come back from Thailand with all the points. Thunder Castle is no easy place to go where a combination of the heat and the atmosphere make it tough for most teams. A good result here for Seoul will set them up nicely for the visit of Sanfreece and then the double-header against Shandong.
Prediction – A hard-fought draw – Buriram 1 Seoul 1
Suwon Bluewings v Gamba Osaka (7:30pm Wednesday 24th)
Suwon begin this year’s Champions League campaign with a home tie against Gamba Osaka in what should be a huge match even at this early stage. Last year they faced Urawa Reds and came back from 1-0 down to record a deserved 2-1 victory and secure all three points. Suwon made home advantage count last year and they will need to do the same again this time to have any chance of emerging from the group. Gamba will want to bounce back from having just lost 3-1 to Sanfreece in the Super Cup. In last year’s competition they knocked out both FC Seoul and Jeonbuk in the knockout stages, a victory for them in the Big Bird and you would think you would be adding Suwon to that list.
Prediction – A goal-scoring draw – Suwon 2 Gamba 2
Guangzhou Evergrande v Pohang (8:30pm Wednesday 24th)
Pohang earned their place at the ACL table by coming through a play-off with Vietnamese team Hanoi T&T. They won the play-off 3-0 but for long periods of the match it was a lot closer than the eventual scoreline would suggest. Pohang seem to have downsized during the close season with Kim Seung Dae’s move to the Chinese Super League being the biggest loss for them. Their opponents need no introduction and are looking to win their second ACL in a row and in the close season boosted their squad with the 42M signing of Jackson Martinez from Athletico Madrid. They are however slow starters in the ACL and this plus the fact they will play their opening match behind closed doors due to breaking regulations regarding sponsorship might just give Pohang a chance. The Steelers face a tough group with Urawa Reds and Sydney FC making up the pack and will need to perform at a higher level than against Hanoi if they are to finish in the top two.
Prediction – A home win for Asia’s self-declared biggest team – Guangzhou 1 Pohang 0