The opening round of the AFC Champions League will be played on February 11 and 12.
With Kashima Antlers eliminated in the playoff round, three Japanese teams, Yokohama F.Marinos, Vissel Kobe and FC Tokyo will start their journey in the group stage. If one of them will advance to the final, it would be the fourth seasons in a row that a Japanese team reach the highest stage of Asian football.
FC Tokyo are the first Japanese club to take on the competition on Tuesday, visiting Ulsan Hyundai in South Korea. In the playoff, they defeated Filipino side Ceres–Negros 2-0 in a match played in harsh whether conditions. The attacking trio of Diego Oliveira and new signings Adailton and Leandro surely has great potential.
Their opponents Ulsan Hyundai are regulars in the ACL and finished their last domestic campaign in the second place behind Jeonbuk Hyundai. In addition to manager Kim Do-hoon who played for Vissel Kobe, they have many players familiar to Japanese football fans, such as Lee Keun-ho and Kim Chang-soo. Brazilian striker Júnior Negrão can also be a serious threat to FC Tokyo. It will be a very important match for FC Tokyo, as they return to the continental competition for the first time in 4 years.
Vissel Kobe will make their ACL debut at home against Johor Darul Ta'zim from Malaysia. They would want to make the most of the momentum after beating Yokohama F.Marinos in the FUJI XEROX SUPER CUP on Saturday. Newcomer Douglas has already scored his first goal and the experienced Brazilian striker could play an important role in the ACL as well.
Johor are the Malaysian champions and also took part in the last edition of the competition. Although they were eliminated in the group stage, one cannot underestimate their quality, that costed Kashima Antlers three points. Kobe could face a tough situation if they are not careful enough about the Malaysian’s key Argentinian attacker Gonzalo Cabrera.
The Japanese champions Yokohama F.Marinos kick off their ACL campaign with a big away match at South Korean Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai.
Although they lost to Kobe in the FUJI XEROX SUPER CUP, Yokohama were the dominant side during the second half. Their attacking ability is still intact, and they will try to implement their play-style even on away games. Meanwhile, it would be important for them to reduce defensive mistakes and to keep up the accuracy during the build-up, especially when they are under pressure.
Jeonbuk Hyundai are the reigning champions of South Korea, and they won their last three consecutive K-League campaigns. Led by Portuguese manager José Morais, they scored the most goals in K-League last season while at the same time boasting the best defense.
Strengthening their squad by signing last season K-League’s MVP Kim Bo-kyung from Ulsan Hyundai, their task is to repeat the success of 2016 and win their third Asian title. They are a tough opponent for Yokohama, but beating them away from home would be a fantastic way to start their continental journey for F.Marinos.