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Gamba Osaka's Satoshi Yamaguchi lifts the Asian Champions League trophy after winning the competition last season. They will be among the favourites to defend the title this year.
Gamba Osaka's  Satoshi Yamaguchi lifts the Asian Champions League trophy after winning the competition last season. They will be among the favourites to defend the title this year.

Bigger, but is it better?

Bigger may not always mean better but there is a feeling that the expanded Asian Champions League will be the best yet.

Bigger may not always mean better but there is a feeling that the expanded 2009 Asian Champions League is going to be the best yet. The number of nations competing has been streamlined in the name of professionalism, the number of teams has been expanded in the name of money and the number of entrants going into the knockout stage has doubled to 16 in the name of competition. What happens from now until November is anyone's guess.

Two teams instead of one will progress from the group stage and stay in the hunt for the greatly increased prize money of around US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m). The Asian Football Confederation wants to see the tournament challenge the European version in the not-too-distant future. That may take time but with the money as well as a place in the Club World Cup at stake, the Asian Champions league is more attractive than ever before.

The title has resided in East Asia for the last three years and for many, the main challenge will come from Japan and South Korea who now, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and China, have four representatives in the competition. Gamba Osaka impressed in lifting the trophy last season and have been one of the few Japanese teams to spend over the winter, forking out big money for Cho Jae-jin of South Korean and the Brazilian Leandro. Both are forwards. Domestic rivals Kashima Antlers lifted their sixth J-league title in December and, after falling at the semi-final stage last season, are determined to transfer success at home to overseas.

Korean giants FC Seoul and Suwon Samsung Bluewings fought it out for the K-league last season. Suwon, twice Asian champions, triumphed and are aiming for a third continental crown. Seoul, a young and talented team coached by Turkey's 2002 World Cup coach Senol Gunes may be more focused on domestic issues. Spare a thought for Singapore's Armed Forces. The city-state's first representatives in the competition find themselves in a group with the champions of Korea and Japan as well as big-spending Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua.

Shanghai have parted with more than $7m to sign, among others, Australia international Mark Milligan and Belarus player Vyacheslav Hleb - the brother of Barcelona's Alexander. Tianjin Teda have also splashed the cash on Australia's Mark Bridge, Jean-Philippe Caillet from Belgium and the Italian Damiano Tommasi. With their best players moving overseas, the two representatives from Australia, Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets are not expected to emulate the success enjoyed by last year's runners-up Adelaide United.

The A-League team defeated the Uzbekistan giants Bunyodkor on the way to the final. The team, led by former Barcelona midfielder Rivaldo, will be confident of making it out of their group, leaving Foolad of Iran, Saudi Arabia's Ettifaq and Al Shabab of UAE fighting it out over the other spot. After shining in early tournaments, West Asian teams have struggled of late and no team from the region were in last year's quarter-finals.

The usual suspects are aiming to right that wrong. The Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal and Al Ittihad have both had a taste of continental success. 2008 was not the best of years for Saudi football and with the national team struggling to qualify for the 2010 World Cup final, the two titans will be looking to put the smile back on the face of Saudi soccer. Iran are doing better and two of the biggest names and biggest rivals are back in the competition after missing out in recent years. Tehran teams Esteghlal and Persepolis regularly attract more than 70,000 to their home games at the Azadi Stadium and that imposing arena alone should see them through.

The UAE, whose Al Ain club won the first ever Asian Champions League, will be hoping that at least two of their four teams in the tournament make it through to the last 16 while Qatar's cash-rich clubs should not be underestimated. jduerden@thenational.ae

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