Familiar foes cross paths in Asia as the AFC Champions League quarter-finals commence on Tuesday. In the continent’s east, a pair of former champions in Jeonbuk Motors and Gamba Osaka will meet for the first time since 2006. Chinese powerhouse and 2013 champions Guangzhou Evergrande, meanwhile, challenge Kashiwa Reysol for the fifth time.
In the west, last year’s runners-up Al Hilal play host to Lekhwiya seeking revenge having lost to the same opponents over two legs in the 2013 edition. Elsewhere, novices Naft Tehran welcome Al Ahli aiming to maintain their dream run.
Kashiwa Reysol-Guangzhou Evergrande
Guangzhou's new boss Luiz Felipe Scolari enters his first AFC Champions League game at Kashiwa aiming to keep an undefeated record intact. The Chinese have won three and drawn one of their past four meetings, including inflicting an 8-1 aggregate defeat on Kashiwa in the last-four meeting en route to the crown two years ago. With the four-time Chinese champions facing stiff challenges on the domestic front this season, the pressure is on Big Phil and his side to maintain their dominant performances on the Asian stage.
Tatsuma Yoshida's hosts, meanwhile, have fixed their sights on revenge. Despite struggling earlier this season in the J-League, Kashiwa have shown eye-catching form on the continental stage, notably edging Suwon Bluewings on away goals in the Round of 16. Boosted by their Asian displays, they have gradually found their feet in the domestic competition by winning six out of the last seven outings.
Both sides have been reinforced with notable signings. Kashiwa swooped for Brazilian forward Ederson from Atletico Paranaense, while Guangzhou secured the service of Brazil international midfielder Paulinho from Tottenham Hotspur. However, Guangzhou's recent star-signing Robinho is sidelined from the AFC Champions League line-up, while last year's top-striker Elkeson remains in doubt with a pulled thigh muscle.
The other attractions
Also notable in Asia’s East Zone is the champions derby between hosts Jeonbuk Motors and Gamba Osaka. Jeonbuk lifted the Asian trophy back in 2006, while Gamba clinched the title two years later. Both sides also represent their respective countries as reigning domestic champions. The Koreans boast a slight mental edge having drawn away and won at home against the same side en route to the title nine years ago. Despite suffering a surprise 1-0 defeat at Incheon United recently, Jeonbuk remain runaway leaders of the K League and are hopeful of bagging a domestic and continental double. However, they will be wary of Gamba's in-form striker Takashi Usami, the team's top-scorer in both domestic and Asian competitions.
In the West Zone, a much-changed Al Hilal entertain Lekhwiya hoping to avenge their 3-2 aggregate loss to the Qatari visitors in the Round of 16 two years ago. Under Greek coach Giorgos Donis, the Riyadh giants have seen big changes recently with playmaker Thiago Neves, Greek striker Georgios Samaras and Romanian midfielder Mihai Pintilli making way for the likes of Brazilian duo Carlos Eduardo and Ailton. Lekhwiya, for their part, have endured the loss of coach Michael Laudrup, who departed after winning the local championship. To fill the void, former coach Djamel Belmadi has been handed back the reigns.
Elsewhere, debutants Naft Teheran welcome Al Ahli looking to maintain their fairy-tale run. Having agonisingly missed out on the Iranian league title - they finishing a point shy of champions Sepahan - Naft are desperate to prove themselves on the Asian front. Brazilian defender Leandro Padovani and Iran internationals Gholamreza Rezaei and Hossein Ebrahimi left this summer, but their hopes have been re-ignited with the signings of defender Jalal Hosseini as well as Brazilian Carlos Santos and Cameroonian striker Aloys Nong. Al Ahli, meanwhile, can look to United Arab Emirates international striker Ahmed Khalil and Brazilian new signing Rodrigo Lima as they target a place in the last four.
Player to watch
Both Paulinho and Robinho were among Guangzhou's star-signings over recent months but it is the former who has been selected into Guangzhou's AFC Champions League squad in preference to the latter. In fact, Paulinho's inclusion fits the team's tactical plan as he is likely to be deployed as the playmaker, filling the void left by Italian Alessandro Diamanti. Having established himself as a box-to-box midfielder with club and country, the 27-year-old is expected to provide drive for Guangzhou.
3 - The quarter-finals feature a trio of former winners in Guangzhou, Jeonbuk and Gamba, while Lekhwiya, Naft and Al Ahli are targeting their maiden last-four qualification.
What they said
"Japanese teams have their unique strengths and characteristics and the preparation against Gamba will create problems. The most important thing is that we maximize our potential and stick to our plans," Jeonbuk Motor coach Choi Kanghee
AFC Champions League fixtures
August 25 & 26
Naft Teheran-Al Ahli
Kashiwa Reysol-Guangzhou Evergrande
Jeonbuk Motors-Gamba Osaka