Matchday Two: 5 Things To Look Out For

As ever, there are plenty of talking points ahead of the week's action, with an Asian powerhouse trying to halt a miserable run, an Australian debutant kicking off their first AFC Champions League campaign and chances to build on positive starts in Japan and Uzbekistan among our five things to look out for.

1. Pakhtakor’s big chance

Uzbekistan champions Pakhtakor have not been beyond the group stage since 2010, exiting at the first hurdle six times since, but they return to the competition with what many would view as their strongest squad in quite some time.

Traditionally strong at home but less so on the road, it was unsurprising that the Tashkent side got their 2020 campaign off to a winning start following a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the UAE’s Shabab Al Ahli at Pakhtakor Stadium last week.

The way the fixtures have fallen, Shota Arveladze’s team have an immediate chance to build on that victory when Iranian debutants Shahr Khodro visit the Uzbek capital on Monday. Having not been beaten in seven home group stage games dating back to 2015, Pakhtakor will be favourities to pick up the points.

With Shabab Al Ahli up against the might of Al Hilal, wins for both the Uzbek side and the defending champions could see the pair open up a six-point gap. While knockout round qualification may be some time away, Pakhtakor have a real chance to put themselves into a strong position at such an early stage. 

Al Ain’s next opportunity to reverse the slump comes on Tuesday when they welcome Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr to Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. It may be too early to describe it as a ‘must-win’ game, but a second consecutive defeat could leave them with an uphill task to qualify.

The inaugural AFC Champions League winners have a proud history and just over three years ago were appearing in the final, boasting the likes of Omar Abdulrahman within their ranks. They will be desperate to return to times that even somewhat resemble the not-so-distant past. 


2. Perth’s belated bow, Popovic’s return

After their opening game against Shanghai Shenhua was postponed, Perth Glory will make their AFC Champions League debut away at FC Tokyo on Tuesday in a game that also marks head coach Tony Popovic’s return to the competition.

Back in 2014, Popovic masterminded the incredible feat of steering Western Sydney Wanderers to the title after beating Saudi giants Al Hilal in the final in what was their maiden AFC Champions League campaign and his first as a coach on the Continent.

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Six years on, after leading Perth to their first A-League Premiership title, the Sydney native again starts the AFC Champions League in charge of a debutant and there is plenty of optimism and excitement around the Western Australia city.

Spanish captain Diego Castro has said it’s “an honour to be part of history” while a new kit has been launched to coincide with their tournament opener. Perth will bring a little bit of the unknown to the AFC Champions League, but with Popovic at the helm, they are certainly an intriguing prospect. 


3. Al Ain must end Continental slump

The 2020 AFC Champions League has begun much like the 2019 edition ended for Al Ain, with the Emirati side slumping to defeat against Iranian opposition. However, last Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to Sepahan was far more concerning than the 2-1 defeat to Esteghal last May, when both sides were already eliminated.

The heavy defeat stretched Al Ain’s winless run on the Continent to nine games and means they have now lost five successive home matches – a sequence that began with a 4-2 defeat to Al Duhail in the 2018 Round of 16 in a game that saw the Garden City side fall four behind.

Al Ain’s next opportunity to reverse the slump comes on Tuesday when they welcome Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr to Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. It may be too early to describe it as a ‘must-win’ game, but a second consecutive defeat could leave them with an uphill task to qualify.

The inaugural AFC Champions League winners have a proud history and just over three years ago were appearing in the final, boasting the likes of Omar Abdulrahman within their ranks. They will be desperate to return to times that even somewhat resemble the not-so-distant past. 


4. Chance for a Chiangrai upset?

For only the second time since 2012, Buriram United are not Thailand’s representatives in the AFC Champions League after Chiangrai United pipped them to the Thai League 1 title last year. But, ahead of the latter’s home debut against Beijing FC, they may look at how their domestic rivals have fared over the years.

Up against clubs from established powerhouses such as Japan, Korea Republic and China PR, Buriram have pulled off some excellent results at home – with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors among the sides who have suffered surprise defeats in recent years – and have reached the knockout rounds on two occasions.

While it would be a tall order to expect Chiangrai to reach the last 16 at the first attempt, the Beetles equipped themselves well in a narrow 1-0 opening-day defeat away at Melbourne Victory and can look forward to welcoming their Chinese opponents to the Power of Chiangrai Stadium on Tuesday.

The visitors will be aiming to make amends for a poor Continental campaign last year, but having not played a competitive game since early December the hosts are one step ahead of them. With a compact ground and a passionate home support, could northern Thailand be the scene of an upset?


5. Yokohama can build on positive start

Making their first appearance in the AFC Champions League since 2014, Yokohama F. Marinos picked up all three points in Korea Republic by running out 2-1 winners over Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on Matchday One as Ange Postecoglou’s men set the pace in Group H.

Back in Japan for the visit of Postecoglou’s countrymen Sydney FC on Wednesday, Yokohama would put themselves in a strong position should they claim a second successive victory and, temporarily at least, open up a six-point lead.

In three previous attempts, the J.League champions have never progressed beyond the group stage, yet a closer inspection of their results shows their record on the Continent is far from poor – their win over Jeonbuk was their 12th victory from 19 games.

Having wrapped up a first league title since 2004 at the end of last year and with one of the most tactically astute coaches in Asia at the helm, Yokohama may well fancy their chances to challenge this year. A win against Sydney would stand them in good stead at this early stage.

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