Past experience tells us that the best team does not always win the Asian Champions League but one question that could be answered as the competition moves to the quarter-final stage is this: are Bunyodkor, probably Asia's richest club off the pitch, also the strongest on it?
The Uzbeks host South Korea's Pohang Steelers in the first leg of their tie today. Not only do they boast a World Cup-winning coach in the form of Luiz Felipe Scolari (and reputedly the highest-paid coach in the world, too) they also have 1999 World Player of the Year Rivaldo. The former Barcelona star is 37 but is the league's top scorer with 19 goals this season and is surrounded by virtually the entire Uzbekistan national team, including the likes of the 2008 Asian Player of the Year Server Djeparov, goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov and veteran forward Anvarjon Soliev.
But that statement is put into perspective by the fact Uzbekistan finished bottom of World Cup qualifying that included Australian, Japan, Bahrain and Qatar. Bunyodkor have increased their domestic superiority by signing the leading players from their rivals Pakhtakor, who play Saudi side Al Ittihad tomorrow in the first leg of their quarter-final. Taking such players has rendered the title race a one-horse contest; Bunyodkor have won all 23 games and are 18 points clear.
The Champions League is where the true test lies and how Scolari, the former Chelsea manager, prepares his men for what will be a tough test. Given Bunyodkor's ambitions for the Asian title and a crack at Fifa's Club World Cup to be held in Abu Dhabi in December, the pressure is on the big-spending Central Asia side. "Pohang have a Brazilian star, Denilson, in their squad and their coach Sergio Farias is well known, so we should take Pohang very seriously and not treat them like a usual rival," warned Rivaldo.
Pohang are in great form and last week had the biggest win in the K-League's 26-year history beating Jeju United 8-1. The team has also won the League Cup. They are known as a team with no big names but fringe national team players such as Choi Hyo-jin, the former Paris Saint-German and Feyenoord forward Denilson and Macedonian marksman Stevica Ristic, besides the rising Yoo Chang-hyun. "We've prepared seriously for this match and our last three matches were all part of our preparation," said Farias, who also guided the Steelers to victory in the 2007 K-League and last year's FA Cup.
"We're doing well domestically, but our priority is the Asian Champions League. Bunyodkor are very strong with Scolari and Rivaldo, but other players are dangerous. We come to win, but a draw would also be a good result for us. Most importantly, we must score an away goal," Farias added. Elsewhere, Pohang's K-league rivals FC Seoul are in Qatar to face Umm Salal while Nagoya Grampus and Kawasaki Frontale play out an all-Japanese affair.
firstname.lastname@example.org Bunyodkor v Pohang, KO 4pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 1