AFC Champions League Play-off Sides Eye Group Stage

Kuala Lumpur, The play-off stage of the 2017 AFC Champions League kicks off on Tuesday, with 16 teams from various parts of the continent vying for the eight final spots in the competition’s group stage. The contest promises to be an entertaining affai…

Kuala Lumpur, The play-off stage of the 2017 AFC Champions League kicks off on Tuesday, with 16 teams from various parts of the continent vying for the eight final spots in the competition's group stage.

The contest promises to be an entertaining affair with former winners such as Gamba Osaka, Ulsan Hyundai and Al Sadd in the mix.

In the West Zone, 2008 AFC Champions League winners Gamba Osaka start things off with a mouth-watering clash against 2015 AFC Cup champions Johor Darul Ta'zim in Suita, with the home side eager to make it to the group stage for the third year running.

Benjamin Mora's Southern Tigers are no slouches, however, having seen off Bangkok United on penalties in the previous round of qualifying. While this represents the furthest the Malaysian champions have gone in the continent's showpiece tournament, the promise of a first-ever appearance in the Group Stage should prove ample motivation for an upset.

Elsewhere, two Chinese clubs from the same city see action with Shanghai Shenhua taking on Brisbane Roar and Shanghai SIPG welcoming first-timers Sukhothai FC.

Shenhua have the more storied history in the AFC Champions League with six appearances, but SIPG matched their best result with a run to the quarter-finals in their debut campaign last year.

Both teams have been boosted by high-profile South American signings in Carlos Tevez and Oscar respectively but head coaches Gus Poyet and Andres Villas-Boas know that such investment will have to be backed up by strong performances and qualification to the tournament.

Last but not least, Ulsan Hyundai are the beneficiaries of defending champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors' expulsion from this year's competition. The 2012 winners play host to Hong Kong's Kitchee SC after the latter needed extra time to eliminate Hanoi FC in the previous round.

Over in the West, Jordan's Al Wehdat and Uzbekistan's FC Nasaf joined six other teams in the play-off stage after progressing from their preliminary stage 2 encounters.

Al Wehdat managed to hold on to a 2-1 win against FC Bengaluru while FC Nasaf romped to a 4-0 win over Al Hidd, earning themselves Play-off ties against the United Arab Emirates' Al Wahda and Saudi Arabia's Al Fateh respectively.

Al Wahda are veterans when it comes to the AFC Champions League and will be hoping to make a seventh appearance in the tournament with experienced Mexican manager Javier Aguirre at the helm. They will fancy their chances against underdogs Al Wehdat, who have yet to qualify for the Group Stage in two previous attempts.

FC Nasaf are one of two Uzbek teams, the other being FC Bunyodkor, hoping to join Lokomotiv Tashkent in the Group Stage. The former AFC Cup winners will need to get past Al Fateh, whose sole previous appearance in the competition came in 2014.

Meanwhile, former Asian Club Championship winners Esteghlal will do battle with 2011 champions Al Sadd in a blockbuster match in Tehran. The two sides have appeared a combined 17 times in the AFC Champions League, but only one of them will progress to the Group Stage this year.

Football fans around the world will also no doubt be familiar with Al Sadd's captain, none other than World Cup winner and former Barcelona star Xavi Hernandez.

The other Qatari club in the play-offs, El Jaish, will face Bunyodkor in Doha with both teams making it this far thanks to runners-up finishes in their leagues last season. Bunyodkor have made the semi-finals of the competition twice, in 2008 and 2012, while El Jaish reached the same stage in last year's tournament.

Source: Qatar News Agency