Kuala Lumpur: The group stage of the 2019 AFC Champions League gets underway in West Asia on Monday and Tuesday with the 16 sides in Groups A to D opening their campaigns.
Iraqi teams return to the AFC Champions League for the first time in over a decade as Al Zawraa line-up in Group A, while all three past winners from West Asia - Al Ain, Al Ittihad and Al Sadd - are present in the group stage.
Returning to Continental football for the second year running, UAE’s Al Wasl welcome Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr in the first match of Group A on Monday.
The Saudi side had cruised past Uzbekistan’s AGMK in the play-off round with a 4-0 victory in Riyadh to round off the quartet of Saudi teams in this year’s group stage alongside the kingdom’s traditional powerhouses Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli.
Al Zawraa return to the AFC Champions League for the first time since 2007, having competed in four editions of the AFC Cup since then. They get their campaign underway with a trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran where they face perennial participants Zobahan.
The Isfahan-based team had to overcome the challenge of Al Gharafa in the play-off round, and they did so in style, coming from two goals down at half time to emerge 3-2 winners in Doha at the final whistle.
Al Wasl (UAE) vs Al Nassr (KSA)
Venue: Al Wasl Stadium, Dubai
Kick-off: March 4, 19:20 UTC+4:00
Zobahan (IRN) vs Al Zawraa (IRQ)
Venue: Foolad Shahr Stadium, Isfahan
Kick-off: March 4, 19:00 UTC+3:30
PFC Lokomotiv and Al Wahda kick-off their 2019 campaigns exactly as they did the previous year. The Emirati side will hope the result is different this time, having lost their Group B opener 5-0 in Tashkent 13 months earlier.
Two-time winners Al Ittihad missed out on the last two editions of the competition but return this time around under difficult circumstances as they find themselves embroiled in a battle to avoid relegation from the Saudi Pro League.
The Jeddah-based side play hosts to Qatar’s Al Rayyan on Monday in what will be the second test for coach Jose Luis Sierra, having drawn 1-1 with city rivals Al Ahli on his return to the club he managed last season.
Al Rayyan had survived an early scare to defeat IR Iran’s Saipa 3-1 in the play-off round to confirm an eighth appearance in the group stage. All previous seven attempts to reach the knockout stage ended in disappointment.
PFC Lokomotiv (UZB) vs Al Wahda (UAE)
Venue: Lokomotiv Stadium, Tashkent
Kick-off: March 4, 16:00 UTC+5
Al Ittihad (KSA) vs Al Rayyan (QAT)
Venue: King Abdullah Sport City, Jeddah
Kick-off: March 4, 20:35 UTC+3
Just like in Group B, this group brings a repeat of a Matchday One fixture from last season. Giants Al Ain and Al Hilal have been pitted in the same group again, but this time their first match-up will be in the UAE on Tuesday.
The match sees a return for coach Zoran Mamic to his old stomping ground, having swapped the Garden City for the Saudi capital in December, after he had helped Al Ain to the 2018 FIFA Club World Cup final.
Two 2018 quarter-finalists go face-to-face in the second Tuesday encounter in Group C. Al Duhail had seen their run of nine consecutive wins ended by Persepolis, while Esteghlal were eliminated at the same stage by Al Sadd.
The Qatari champions have since strengthened their ranks with the likes of Medhi Benatia and Shoya Nakajima, while the Tehran giants snapped up striker Godwin Mensha from rivals Persepolis.
Al Duhail (QAT) vs Esteghlal (IRN)
Venue: Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium, Doha
Kick-off: March 5, 18:15 UTC+3
Al Ain (UAE) vs Al Hilal (KSA)
Venue: Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain
Kick-off: March 5, 19:20 UTC+4
Of the 16 West Asian sides participating in this season’s AFC Champions League, it was Persepolis who went furthest last time around, losing the 2018 final 2-0 to Japan’s Kashima Antlers.
Branko Ivankovic’s men return to Azadi Stadium where the previous campaign ended in disappointment. They face Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor who had to overcome the reigning AFC Cup champions Air Force Club in the play-off round.
A repeat of last year’s Round of 16 fixture sees Al Sadd travel to Jeddah to play Al Ahli. The Qataris had come away from King Abdullah Sport City with a 2-1 win which ultimately helped them seal a 4-3 aggregate result and advance to the quarter-finals.
Al Ahli, whose best Continental performance was reaching the final in 2012, return for the third time in four years, having finished second in the Saudi Pro League. Meanwhile, this will be Al Sadd’s sixth consecutive Continental participation.
Persepolis (IRN) vs Pakhtakor (UZB)
Venue: Azadi Stadium, Tehran
Kick-off: March 5, 18:30 UTC+3:30
Al Ahli (KSA) vs Al Sadd (QAT)
Venue: King Abdullah Stadium, Jeddah
Kick-off: March 5, 20:15 UTC+3