The 2017 Asian Champions League has reached the group stage and with upsets having already taken place, we should be in for an exciting tournament. The competition started on the 21st of January and is played throughout most of the calendar year ending in November. This will be the 36th edition of Asia’s premier club football tournament and it promises to be one of the best. In addition to being crowned the top football club in Asia, the winners of the 2017 AFC Champions League also win the right to play in the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
As mentioned above, some matches have already taken place in the preliminary rounds and one of the strongly fancied teams to progress to the group stages of the tournament has already been eliminated. Chinese Super League giants, Shanghai Shenhua, were forced to issue an apology to their fans having been knocked out of the 2017 AFC Champions League by the Brisbane Roar hailing from Australia. Despite spending big money to bring in Argentine striker Carlos Tevez, Shanghai Shenhua was no match for its opponent, who came away with a 2-0 win to seal their place in the group stages of the Asian Champions League. The victory was a shock, especially as Shanghai was playing in their home stadium.
【2017 AFC Champions League Highlights: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Brisbane Roar】
So with the preliminary rounds over, the draw for the group stage of the 2017 AFC Champions League was held. Those progressing have been placed into eight groups of four teams each with one region being labeled as the West Region and the other appropriately titled the East Region.
Interestingly, the defending champions, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, will not be involved in the competition this year, as they have been suspended due to a bribery scandal in their domestic K League. An appeal for them to be reinstated was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and this means we are guaranteed a different winner in 2017.
The eight groups are as follows:
Since the final of the AFC Champions League changed to feature a two-leg final in 2013, Guangzhou Evergrande has won the tournament twice, firstly on away goals and secondly thanks to a 1-0 win. The Chinese club has been placed in Group G along with the Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Kawasaki Frontale and Eastern. Guangzhou is the only club in this group to have any experience of winning the tournament and having made two recent finals, they are clear favourites to make it to the Round of 16. Guangzhou is also the favourite to go on and win the tournament and can be backed at 4/1 with William Hill to win the 2017 AFC Champions League. Japanese outfit, Kawasaki Frontale should fancy their chances of finishing second against the minnows from Hong Kong, Eastern and Suwon Samsung Bluewings, who finished 7th in the K-League.
【2015 AFC Champions League Final Highlights: Guangzhou Evergrande vs. Al Ahli】
Last season’s defeated finalist, Al Ain, returns to try and go one better this year and has been drawn in a group with Al Ahli Saudi, Zob Ahan and Bunyodkor. This is interesting because we have two teams who have reached recent finals and both lost, the other being Al Ahli Saudi, who went down to Ulsan Hyundai in 2012. Despite reaching the final last year, Al Ain is priced at 25/1 to win the 2017 AFC Champions League perhaps due to their domestic form, which sees them sitting 10 points off the pace in the Arabian Gulf League table. Al Ahli Saudi is on offer at shorter odds to win the tournament at 16/1 with sportsbook William Hill and is in generally better form than Al Ain and scoring plenty of goals in their domestic league. Both teams should come through Group C comfortably enough.
The reward for Brisbane Roar’s win over Shanghai Shenhua is a decent looking group containing the Japanese champions, Kashima Antlers, Muangthong United, the champions of Thailand, who shouldn’t offer much of a threat, and the South Korean team, Ulsan Hyundai, who only qualified because of the expulsion of Jeonbuk. Although Ulsan won the AFC Champions League in 2012, they are not considered a threat this season and are 18/1 to win the tournament. Kashima Antlers shouldn’t have too much trouble coming through this group and are available at a tempting 16/1 with bookie William Hill to win the tournament. Brisbane Roar could make second place but at 50/1 do not have enough to go all the way and win the 2017 AFC Champions League.
Moving on to Group F and this could be one of the most entertaining groups to watch. This group features the champions of South Korea, FC Seoul, the star-studded team of Shanghai SIPG, Urawa Red Diamonds, who finished second in Japan and the Western Sydney Wanderers of the Australian A-League. Shanghai SIPG has two of the big-name players in this season’s AFC Champions League with Oscar and Hulk now playing for the Red Eagles. However, as witnessed by Shanghai Shenhua’s demise in the preliminary rounds, big name players do not guarantee success and both FC Seoul and Urawa have a good chance of finishing in the top two and qualifying for the Round of 16.
Since winning the competition in 2014, the Western Sydney Wanderers have struggled to match that success and are sitting in the bottom half of their domestic league. Expect FC Seoul and Shanghai SIPG to qualify from this group and if they do, both could go far in the tournament this year. Both teams are priced at 8/1 to win the 2017 AFC Champions League with William Hill.
【2017 AFC Champions Playoff Stage: Shanghai SIPG vs. Sukhothai】
Elsewhere, China’s Jiangsu Suning is fancied to go far in the tournament and much like the other Chinese clubs in this tournament, has brought in some well-known names including Ramires and Alex Teixeira. With Adelaide United, Gamba Osaka and Jeju United in their group, Jiangsu Suning should qualify in the top position. Expect them to be a dangerous opponent in the latter stages of the tournament.
Another team who should not be underestimated is Al Ahli Dubai from the Arabian Gulf League. With Asamoah Gyan, Makhete Diop and Ahmed Khali in their forward line, they have the potential to score plenty of goals and should be very entertaining to watch. They should have no problem qualifying from their group and make a tempting bet to win the 2017 AFC Champions League priced at 16/1 with bookmaker William Hill.
In terms of the top goalscorer in AFC Champions League this season, it is difficult to look beyond the Brazilian players. Both Hulk and Elkeson of Shanghai SIPG believe they can finish the competition as top scorer and if they go deep in the tournament, it’s likely to be because of their goals. Jiangsu Suning will be banking on Alex Teixeira to score their goals but they may not progress far enough in the tournament for him to get the goals required to finish on top of the pile.
Staying in South America and Guangzhou Evergrande will be looking towards their Colombian striker, Jackson Martinez to score the goals necessary for them to win the Asian Champions League. Martinez has scored goals wherever he has played, including Porto and Atletico Madrid, and this makes him a very good bet to finish as top goalscorer. For an outside bet, Omar Al Somah of Al Ahli Jeddah and Ahmed Khalil of Al Ahli Dubai are worth backing having been in good goal scoring form this season.
With the huge investment made by some of the Chinese clubs recently, it will be interesting to see how they fare in the AFC Champions League this year. Both Shanghai SIPG and Jiangsu Suning have received a lot of press regarding their transfer business but will it be enough for either club to make the final? Perhaps the best piece of business, all be it an expensive one, was the signing of Jackson Martinez by Guangzhou Evergrande. This is a player who guarantees goals and he could take the Chinese club all the way to the final and they are rightly favourites at 4/1 with William Hill. However, for a good outside bet do not underestimate Al Ahli Dubai, who has some very exciting forwards and should have no problem progressing from their group. At 16/1, Al Ahli Dubai could go one better than they did when reaching the final in 2015 and win the 2017 AFC Champions League.