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AFC Champions League

Former Asian kings eye last-four passage

Saudi Al-Hilal's players celebrate after the scoring

The cream, they say, rises to the top. It is a term that could easily be applied to this year’s AFC Champions League quarter-final line-up, with six former Asian kings winning through to the last-eight.

All four participants in the west half of the competition - Al Ain, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Al Sadd - have previously tasted Asian glory. Meanwhile in the east, all-powerful reigning champs Guangzhou Evergrande are set for action, as are 2009 winners Pohang Steelers. previews this week's action, with the winner of November’s final to compete in the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco.

The match
*Western Sydney Wanderers – Guangzhou Evergrande *
Two years into their existence the A-League’s newest club have defied the odds to reach the last-eight, but the football gods have offered little reward with a pairing against Chinese super club Guangzhou Evergrande. The Marcello Lippi coached side are reigning Asian champions, and their star-laden side have won the past three Chinese crowns in a canter. They are now on track for a fourth successive title, while the Western Sydney Wanderers enter this contest in pre-season mode. Their first competition match of the new campaign was a shock FFA Cup loss to second-tier side Adelaide City last week. Without their injured Australia FIFA World Cup™ defender Matt Spiranovic and departed talisman Shinji Ono, the Wanderers face a massive challenge though the clubs boasts an against-the-odds spirit forged in the mould of coach Tony Popovic.

The Wanderers will take some solace from Melbourne Victory’s win over the Chinese powerhouse when Evergrande last visited Australia. It was one of two losses Evergrande suffered over six matches in a stuttering group campaign, though they bounced back to overpower Cerezo Osaka in the Round of 16 with a comfortable 5-2 scoreline. Since then, Evergrande have lost free-scoring Brazilian Muriqui to Champions League rivals Al Sadd but they have enjoyed strong showings on the domestic stage, where they now boast a seemingly unassailable margin. The Brazilian’s departure, meanwhile, has been largely offset by the arrival of Serie A star forward Alberto Gilardino.

The other attractions
An intriguing all-Korea Republic affair awaits as Pohang Steelers host FC Seoul. The pair enter the match-up in contrasting recent form with 2009 Champions League winners Pohang slipping to a costly 2-0 defeat against K-League Classic leaders Jeonbuk Motors. 2013 ACL runners-up FC Seoul, meanwhile, recorded an impressive 5-1 victory over Incheon United following what has been an erratic campaign for the capital club. But on the continental stage Pohang, under former Korea Republic international Hwang Sunhong, are the competition’s final remaining unbeaten side.

In the west, inaugural AFC Champions League winners Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates entertain two-time winners Al Ittihad from Saudi Arabia in a repeat of the 2005 final. The southern UAE club have been steadily improving over recent years, following a lean period since winning the maiden edition of the AFC Champions League, and they are now in their first quarter-final for eight years. Al Ain have lost Australian striker Alex Brosque during their off-season, but still boast Asamoah Gyan at the point of the attack following the striker’s heroics for Ghana at Brazil 2014. Two-time winners Al Ittihad earned a place in the last eight for a third time in four years after claiming four points against Al Ain in the group stage, before easing past fellow Saudi Pro League side Al Shabab on aggregate in the Round of 16.

Like Al Ain, Qatar’s Al Sadd are another club seeking to overturn a group-stage humbling when they visit Riyadh and another meeting with Al Hilal. The Qataris crashed to a 5-0 defeat when they last visited the Kingdom, but the 2011 Asian champions recovered to finish second behind their group rivals. The Saudis, for their part, have underachieved on the continent reaching the semi-finals just once back in 2010. Hilal have, however, opened their domestic campaign brightly and sit top of the fledgling table.

*Player to watch *Italian attacker midfielder Alessandro Diamanti has thrived since joining Guangzhou Evergrande, and is invariably at the forefront of the team’s creativity. He turned in a stunning continental debut earlier this year against Melbourne Victory, almost single-handedly turning the game on its head, and he will be looking to repeat that form against another A-League opponent. On the debit side, the 31-year-old has since suffered the pain of being omitted from the *Azzurri *squad for Brazil 2014 despite featuring at last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup.

The stat 4 - Despite struggling in the K-League Classic, FC Seoul have performed well in the AFC Champions League securing a fourth quarter-final appearance in six years.

The quote *“Winning the domestic double last year gave us a lot of confidence that we retain with us each time we play now. And we believe that the result of this will show on the pitch.”Veteran Pohang Steelers midfielder Hwang Jisoo*

The fixtures
*Quarter-finals, first leg
*Al Ain (UAE)-Al Ittihad (KSA)
Al Hilal (KSA)-Al Sadd (QAT)
*Western Sydney Wanderers (AUS)-Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN)
Pohang Steelers (KOR)-FC Seoul (KOR)

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