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17 April 2024

Asian eyes set on UAE

The UAE will have four representatives in Wednesday's AFC draw. (GETTY IMAGES)

By John McAuley

This Wednesday, thousands of miles from the sleepy Swiss town of Nyon, another Champions League draw will take place.

But the names of Europe's most grandiose clubs won't be plucked from the pool of balls on display in Dubai.

While footballing heavyweights Manchester United, Barcelona and Inter Milan are focusing on masterminding title-winning campaigns in their respective countries, the less-celebrated teams of Suwon Bluewings, Kashima Antlers and Newcastle United Jets will occupy thoughts in the emirate.

The fixtures for the group stage of the 2009 AFC Champions League, hosted by the Asian Football Confederation, are to be determined this week. And on March 10, sides from across Asia commence their quest to be crowned champions of the continent.

It may not garner the same worldwide media attention as its Uefa sibling, but those close to football in countries like Japan, Australia and the UAE will pay particular heed to the eight pools of four drawn in the emirate.

The 32-team tournament operates much like it does in Europe. Once the final remaining two spots – a side from East Asia and one from the West – are taken via the last qualifying round in February, eight groups of teams will battle it out in a round robin format.

The winners from each quartet are then joined in the last 16 by the eight runners-up, where a knockout competition ensues until the final is fought out in Tokyo's National Olympic Stadium on November 6.

The UAE could boast four representatives in this year's rendering. Al Shabab, Al Jazira and Al Ahly have already qualified for the competition – through last season's lofty league finishes – and may be joined by Al Sharjah should the Emiratis see off Dempo, India's 2007/08 I-League conquerors, in their February showdown.

If Sharjah make the trio a foursome, the UAE will be well placed to celebrate its second success after Al Ain won the first official Asian Champions League in 2003. Through various guises, the competition has existed since 1967 and, despite a 14-year absence during the 1970s and early 1980s, will begin later this year for the 28th time.

Saudi giants Al Ittihad, champions in both 2004 and 2005, should be feared together with their compatriots Al Hilal. Meanwhile, Japan's Gamba Osaka highlighted their aptitude with an impressive showing against Manchester United at Fifa's Club World Cup two weeks ago – the reward for winning last year's tournament.

The Asian Champions League perhaps lacks the reputation of its European counterpart, but the $14m (Dh51.4m) prize pool proves Uefa don't have the only lucrative competition on the block. And with the winners also pocketing a high-profile trip to the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi next year, you can expect similar drama.