The East Asian section of the 2021 AFC Champions League finally gets underway this Tuesday with the first group stage games from Group G. Football Tribe Asia’s Cokorda Krishna Sadhana runs through the East Asian section of Asian football’s premier competition to see how the teams will fare during the group stages and to predict who will join their West Asian peers in the knockout stages. For the second part of this two-parter, Krishna took a gander to Groups I and J to see how the contenders are faring up.
Group I – Kawasaki Frontale (Japan), Beijing Guoan (China), Daegu FC (South Korea), United City FC (Philippines)
Dominant champions of the 2020 J.League 1 season and the current leaders of the 2021 season, Kawasaki are without a doubt huge favorites in this group. Even without Ao Tanaka – who is undergoing talks for a potential move to Europe -, Toru Oniki’s men have what it takes to steamroll their opponents in Group I.
Oniki have successfully combined a wealth of experience in Yu Kobayashi, Akihiro Ienaga, and Leandro Damiao with exciting youth prospects in Kaoru Mitoma, Tanaka, and Reo Hatate into a cohesive, ruthless unit, cakewalking their way to the 2020 J1 title before making short work of the 2021 season. The men in sky blue are currently still unbeaten after 21 games with 17 wins and 4 draws and they look set to defend their title for a second consecutive year. However, it is to be seen on whether Kawasaki could bring their ruthless dominance from the domestic stage to continental action.
Under normal circumstances I would predict Beijing and Daegu to fight it out for 2nd place, however Beijing has decided to keep their big guns at home and bring their U-23 team to Tashkent for their ACL games. China’s strict quarantine measures has forced the country’s ACL representatives to prioritize domestic action over continental duties and Beijing’s depleted squad could give Daegu and Filipino champions United City some extra incentive in the battle for that runners-up spot.
Even though they’re rank outsiders, United City are not a side to be trifled with as they are one of ASEAN’s best teams in recent years. Leaving their AFC Cup playground for the bigger pond that is the ACL, the Golden Boys will be relying once again on the prowess of Bienvenido Maranon in front of goal. The all-time top scorer of the AFC Cup, Maranon is aging like fine wine and his ripe old legs of 35 could slice any defenses open like butter.
Other than Maranon, United City can count on their selection of Filipino’s finest in their continental quest. The likes of Stephan Schrock, Mike Ott, Manny Ott, Hikaru Minegishi and Jordan Jarvis were already part of the team that dominated the Philippines Football League in 2020 and the United City squad were further bolstered ahead of their maiden ACL campaign with the likes of Amin Nazari, Omid Nazari, Adam Reed, Curt Dizon, and Justin Baas joining the fold.
The only major losses that United City suffered during the off-season were the departures of OJ Porteria to Ratchaburi Mitr Phol in Thailand, Robert Lopez Mendy to Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng in Cambodia, and Takashi Odawara to Maziya S&RC in the Maldives.
With a squad that had experience in taking Asian football by storm, United City will be confident that they can perform competitively in this year’s ACL.
As for Daegu, they found themselves experiencing the same upwards trajectory as United City in recent years. Perennial underachievers, things started to look bright for Daegu after they had won the 2018 Korean FA Cup. Earning themselves a ticket to the 2019 edition of the ACL, Daegu showcased a decent showing despite their limited resources (they had the smallest wage bill out of all of the K-League 1 teams), beating Melbourne Victory twice and Guangzhou Evergrande once despite failing to get out of their group.
Cup winning head coach Andre may have left the club in 2019 but his successor Lee Byung-keun managed to keep the rise going, with Daegu posting two consecutive 5th placed finishes in 2019 and 2020. 4th placed Sangju Sangmu’s decision to relegate themselves as part of their move to Gimcheon allowed Daegu to snap up South Korea’s final ACL ticket, even though they will qualify to the competition anyway due to Sangju’s status as a military team.
Players-wise Daegu managed to retain a good bulk of their squad. The dynamic Brazilian duo of Edgar and Cesinha are ready to terrorize defenses while Tsubasa Nishi is entrusted in running the Daegu midfield engine alongside former Singha Chiangrai United player Lee Yong-rae. Oita Trinita goalkeeper Mun Kyung-gun was brought in to replace Gu Sung-yun who’s leaving for his military service with Gimcheon Sangmu, while defensive midfielder Ryu Jae-moon is off to defending K-League champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
All in all, should both United City and Daegu retain their momentum, we should see an interesting battle for 2nd place between these two.
Group J – Guangzhou FC (China), Port FC (Thailand), Kitchee SC (Hong Kong), Cerezo Osaka (Japan)
Despite Guangzhou being the top seeds for Group J, I’m gunning for either Cerezo or Port to make their mark in Buriram as Guangzhou, like their fellow Chinese peers, have decided to bring their reserve squad for the ACL. With the absence of the likes of Elkeson and Ricardo Goulart from continental duty, the three other teams in Group J will be relishing a chance of pick up as many points as they could from the Southern China Tigers.
Having renovated their PAT Stadium extensively prior to their failed bid for the 2020 ACL, Port will be disappointed that they won’t be playing in Khlong Toei but instead at league rivals Buriram United’s Chang Arena, but the Lions will be eager to make their mark as hosts of the group. Thanks to the financial backing of “Madame Pang” Nualphan Lamsan, Port boast a squad studded with star players ranging from Pakorn Prempak, Bordin Phala, Sergio Suarez, Charyl Chappuis, Tanaboon Kesarat, Kevin Deeromram, Go Seul-ki and Nitipong Selanon.
Adding more to the Lions of Khlong Toei’s firepower are former Ratchaburi captain Philip Roller and former Sukhothai FC skipper John Baggio. Baggio’s impressive performance with the Fire Bats in 2020 had enticed Port into signing the Malagasy international, despite his failure to save Sukhothai from relegation last season. Salvadorian striker Nelson Bonilla was dropped from Port’s ACL squad to accommodate Baggio, while in a more sentimental note long-serving club captain David Rochela was included in the ACL squad after being omitted from the Lions’ Thai League squad in 2020 due to the league’s quota on foreign players.
Cerezo, on the other hand, are in a period of transition following the departure of head coach Miguel Angel Lotina to Shimizu S-Pulse during the off-season. With Levir Culpi at the helm for his fourth stint with the men in pink, Cerezo managed to retain their key men in Riku Matsuda, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Hiroaki Okuno, while adding in some new players in veteran striker Yoshito Okubo, Riku’s twin brother Riki Matsuda, former Vissel Kobe defender Dankler, Vietnamese goalkeeper Dang Van Lam, and Australian danger man Adam Taggart.
Former Suwon Samsung Bluewings man Taggart is projected to become Cerezo’s focal point of attack in the ACL this season, having been absent for a good part of Cerezo’s so-so league campaign due to Japan’s quarantine measures. Should Taggart replicate his goalscoring prowess at Suwon with Cerezo, the J1 side has a good chance of getting out of Group J.
However, Hong Kong champions Kitchee shouldn’t be underestimated as they boast veteran Montenegrin striker Dejan Damjanovic as their main main. Damjanovic, who had scored goals for fun in South Korea with Suwon, FC Seoul, and Daegu, is aiming to depose South Korean legend Lee Dong-gook as the ACL’s all-time top scorer. Jeonbuk great Dong-gook had scored 37 times throughout the competition while Damjanovic is close behind with 36 goals, and should he score five more he’ll break that sacred 40-goal threshold that would confirm his status in ACL folklore.
While Kitchee’s last ACL exploit ended in only one win and five defeats from six games, Guangzhou’s decision to send in the kids might spark some confidence within the Hong Kong champions that they could at least better their achievements from 2018.