Spending spree ensures Asian Champions League spotlight falls on Saudi clubs

Spending spree ensures asian champions league spotlight falls on saudi clubs0

Cristiano Ronaldo, a five-time champion of the UEFA Champions League, will start his quest for a continental crown on Tuesday when Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr clash with 2020 runners-up Persepolis in the Asian Champions League.

When the Saudi Pro League kicks off this week, a number of well-known players, including the Portuguese, who won his European championships with Real Madrid and Manchester United, will bring a great deal of celebrity to Asia’s top club tournament.

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In the competition for the top prize of US$4 million, 40 teams from 20 leagues around the confederation were chosen into 10 groups and would play one another starting on Monday. Only the winners would be guaranteed to go on to the knockout stages. Al-Nassr is one of those clubs.

That fee is little in comparison to what Saudi teams have paid to add a group of seasoned players to an already excellent league on the continent.

The competition’s most successful team, Al-Hilal, lost in the final of the most recent edition to Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds despite having recruited Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain for 90 million euros in August.

Twelve players from Saudi Arabia’s World Cup squad, led by Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus, are part of the Riyadh-based team. Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ruben Neves, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic have also been added to the roster.

The Asian Football Confederation has loosened rules on foreign players, so Al-Hilal may field up to six foreign recruits for their first game on Monday against Uzbekistan’s Navbahor in Group D, which also includes Mumbai City and Iran’s Nassaji Mazandaran.

Al-Ittihad, the Saudi Pro League winners led by Karim Benzema, will start their campaign against AGMK of Uzbekistan and then take on Sepahan of Iran and the Air Force of Iraq in Group C in an attempt to capture their first Asian championship since 2005.

Saudi teams are predicted to rule the west Asian side of the draw as Japanese teams try to hold onto their lead in the east.

Wednesday marks Urawa’s Group J debut against Wuhan Three Towns, the Chinese champions, after they were also drawn against Pohang Steelers and Hanoi FC. Meanwhile, the reigning J.League winners, Yokohama F Marinos, begin their season against Incheon United.

In Group I, Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea, the reigning champion, and BG Pathum United of Thailand are the other two teams. Kawasaki Frontale, on the other hand, will start the match against Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim.

Last under the present structure, the competition’s group stages continue until December 13. The knockout stages begin on February 12 and conclude with a home-and-away match on May 11 and 18.

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