The draw for the 2021 AFC Champions League group stages was done on Wednesday and teams from East Asia and Southeast Asia learnt their opposition in the upcoming season of Asia’s premier club competition. Thai League 1 leaders BG Pathum United were handed a mammoth of a task as they were drawn into Group F alongside defending ACL champions Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea and 2020 V.League 1 champions Viettel FC of Vietnam as well as a play-off winner between Beijing Sinobo Guoan of China, Brisbane Roar of Australia, and Kaya FC-Iloilo of the Philippines.
With the safety of teams in the light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in mind, the group stages for the 2021 ACL will be held in centralized venues to be determined through a bidding process, with the group matches being played in a normal double round-robin basis.
Ulsan, who had just recently parted ways with ACL-winning head coach Kim Do-hoon, will start their continental title defense in Group F against the likes of BGPU, who are brimming with talent such as Thitipan Puangchan, Chatchai Bootprom, Victor Cardozo, Andres Tunez, Diogo, and Teerasil Dangda. The Horang-i will also have to contend against Viettel, who are making their debut in the ACL. With their name and logo – bearing Vietnam’s largest telecommunications company – being reviewed by the AFC, Truong Viet Hoang’s men may be asked to change their name and logo due to AFC’s regulations on corporate sponsorship, however the likes of Bui Tien Dung, Que Ngoc Hai, Ho Khac Ngoc, Vu Minh Tuan, Tran Nguyen Manh, Pedro Paulo and Caique Lemes would be relishing a chance of squaring off against the mighty Ulsan.
Despite losing Do-hoon and on the verge of losing talisman Junior Negrao to Chinese Super League newcomers Changchun Yatai, Ulsan still have the likes of Yoon Bit-garam, Bjorn Johnsen, Kim In-sung, Sin Jin-ho, Kim Kee-hee, and Lee Chung-yong within their squad for their title defense.
The final team of Group F will be decided from the qualifying play-offs, with Brisbane playing Kaya in the preliminary round in early April before the winners of that tie will pay Beijing a visit.
7-time Liga Super Malaysia champions Johor Darul Ta’zim are drawn into Group G, alongside 2020 Chinese Super League champions Jiangsu FC (formerly Jiangsu Suning) and 2020 J.League 1 third placers Nagoya Grampus. The final spot in Group G will be contested between ACL powerhouses Pohang Steelers of South Korea and debutants Ratchaburi Mitr Phol of Thailand, the two playing a one-off play-off match on April 14th.
2020 J.League 1 runners-up Gamba Osaka will face tough competition from South Korean titans Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in Group H, with Australian champions Sydney FC and Tampines Rovers, the highest-ranked domestic team in the 2020 Singapore Premier League season, rounding off the quartet.
Singha Chiangrai United of Thailand will be relishing a second-consecutive appearance in the ACL group stages, however they must contend against Daegu FC of South Korea in the qualifying play-offs this April. The winner of that tie are drawn into Group G, alongside reigning J.League 1 champions Kawasaki Frontale, 2020 Chinese Super League runners-up Guangzhou FC (formerly Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao), and 2020 Philippine Football League winners United City FC (formerly Ceres-Negros).
After an embarrassing exit from the 2020 ACL qualifiers at the hands of United City, Port FC’s 2nd place finish in the first half of the 2020-21 Thai League 1 season was enough for the Lions of Khlong Toei to qualify for the ACL group stages for the first time. Sarawut Treephan’s men will take on 2020 Chinese FA Cup winners Shandong Taishan (formerly Shandong Luneng Taishan), Kitchee FC of Hong Kong, and the qualifying play-off winner between Cerezo Osaka of Japan, Melbourne City of Australia, and Myanmar’s Shan United.
The group stages of the 2021 ACL will be played out from April 14th for teams in the West Region and April 21st for teams in the East Region. Winners of each group will qualify to the round of 16, alongside the the best 3 runners-up of each region.