Reigning Liga Super Malaysia champions Johor Darul Ta’zim were handed a tough group for their 2022 AFC Champions League campaign. The Southern Tigers were drawn to Group I, together with J.League 1 champions Kawasaki Frontale, Chinese giants Guangzhou FC, and the qualifying play-off winner between South Korean titans Ulsan Hyundai and Thai side Port FC.
With 2-time ACL winners Ulsan the overwhelming favorites in their play-off tie against the Lions of Khlong Toei, it’s almost certain that JDT will be surrounded by behemoths left, right, and center in this year’s tournament.
Kawasaki clinched their fourth J1 title in five years back in November and although they’ve lost their rising stars in Kaoru Mitoma, Reo Hatate, and Ao Tanaka to European football, the men from Kanagawa Prefecture are still a force to be reckoned with. Mainstays in Yu Kobayashi, Yasuto Wakizaka, Miki Yamane and Leandro Damiao are still at the club, and Toru Oniki’s men had just received a massive boost in the form of Thai international Chanathip Songkrasin, who they had recently signed from Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo.
Although having lost a significant amount of their firepower following the financial crisis enveloping owners Evergrande Group, Guangzhou FC still boasts a strong squad packed with Chinese internationals. Guangzhou’s naturalized stars in Ai Kesen (Elkeson), A Lan (Alan Carvalho), Ricardo Goulart, and Luo Guofu (Alosio) may have departed alongside head coach Fabio Cannavaro, but they still have the likes of Wei Shihao, Huang Bowen, player-manager Zheng Zhi, and Jiang Guangtai (Tyias Browning). The likes of Bowen and Zhi, who were part of the Guangzhou squad that won the ACL in 2013 and 2015, would surely put their experience to good use in the upcoming campaign.
JDT themselves are also gearing themselves up for the new season. Gonzalo Cabrera was surprisingly allowed to leave the club after five years with the club, while Syafiq Ahmad, the man who scored the winning goal in JDT’s first-ever ACL win, was loaned out to league rivals Kedah Darul Aman. Other than the duo – as well as Indonesian youngster Syahrian Abimanyu who left the club for Persija Jakarta – a good chunk of JDT’s squad from the previous year was retained, which includes the likes of Bergson, Safawi Rasid, Leandro Velazquez, Ramadhan Saifullah, Afiq Fazail and La’Vere Corbin-Ong. Reinforcing the Southern Tigers’ backline is Syahmi Safari from Selangor FC while replacing Cabrera will be former Udinese and Sheffield Wednesday striker Fernando Forestieri.
Meanwhile, Thai champions BG Pathum United were handed a somewhat manageable group, being drawn to Group G alongside South Korea’s Jeonnam Dragons, Filipino giants United City FC, and Australian champions Melbourne City. By virtue of winning the 2021 Korean FA Cup, Jeonnam made history as being the first team outside of the top-flight to qualify for the ACL since Emirates Club of the United Arab Emirates back in 2011.
Singaporean champions Lion City Sailors will make their ACL debut in Group F alongside Chinese champions Shandong Taishan, 2021 Emperor’s Cup winners Urawa Red Diamonds, and the qualifying play-off winner between Daegu FC of South Korea and Thai behemoths Buriram United – a tie that sees Daegu head coach Alexandre Gama facing-off against his former team. The Sailors are currently underneath the tutelage of Kim Do-hoon, who won Ulsan the 2020 ACL title.
2021 Thai FA Cup winners Chiangrai United found themselves being pitted against Chinese and Hong Kong opposition as they were drawn into Group J alongside Shanghai Port and Kitchee FC, with either one of Japan’s Vissel Kobe, Myanmar’s Shan United, and Australia’s 2nd representative joining them in the group later on, while Kiatisuk Senamuang’s Hoang Anh Gia Lai of Vietnam face a brutal Group H, where they will take on South Korean titans Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos, and the qualifying play-off winner between Kaya FC-Iloilo of the Philippines, Australia’s 3rd representative, and China’s Changchun Yatai.