KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Vitor Pereira will lead Shanghai SIPG’s nearly men of the Chinese Super League into the latest edition of the Asian Champions League on Tuesday, with Japanese champions Kawasaki Frontale hoping to deny the Portuguese a winning start to the 2018 campaign.
SIPG reached the semi-finals last year as well as finishing runners-up in both the Chinese Super League and the Chinese FA Cup under former coach Andre Villas-Boas before the Portuguese quit at the end of his only season.
But while SIPG’s expensively assembled squad go into the competition among the favourites despite the upheaval, Frontale striker Yu Kobayashi is targeting all three points to kick start his side’s challenge.
“The opening match is particularly important if we want to qualify for the knockout stage, so we have to prepare well. Shanghai have Oscar and Hulk, who are experienced, high-quality players who play with aggression,” he said.
Both Frontale and SIPG, who have been drawn in group F alongside Melbourne Victory and South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai, were eliminated from last year’s competition by Urawa Red Diamonds, who went on to win the title.
Urawa, however, will not defend their crown after failing to qualifying for this year’s competition through their domestic league.
Clubs from the east of the continent are expected to dominate this year, as they have throughout the last decade and more.
East Asian clubs have won 11 of the last 12 editions and all of the last six, with Qatar’s Al Sadd the only team to break the sequence in 2011.
Twice champions Jeonbuk Motors from South Korea return after missing the 2017 campaign due to a ban following their involvement in a domestic match fixing scandal and will meet Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol in group E, which also includes China’s Tianjin Quanjian and Kitchee of Hong Kong.
Other double winners, 2013 and 2015 champions Guangzhou Evergrande, feature in group G with Buriram United of Thailand, Japan’s Cerezo Osaka and Jeju United from South Korea, with Fabio Cannavaro returning to the helm of the Chinese champions after a six-month stint three years ago.
Shanghai Shenhua will kick off their post-Carlos Tevez era in group H hoping to build on their Chinese FA Cup win from last year.
Victory in the domestic cup final over SIPG was achieved without Tevez, who has since returned to his native Argentina after an unhappy season, and Shenhua will launch their bid against Japan’s Kashima Antlers before taking on Sydney FC and Suwon Bluewings.
Last year’s finalists, Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, will be among those expected to challenge from the west, although they have been drawn in group D alongside former winners Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates.
Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Clare Lovell