By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Withdrawals, weakened squads and worries over the ongoing pandemic have overshadowed the build-up to the return of the Asian Champions League, but on Wednesday east Asia’s leading clubs will finally resume their quest for the continental crown.
Fifteen of the region’s top teams will converge on Qatar in a centralised tournament after the global coronavirus outbreak forced the suspension of the competition in March with only a handful of matches played.
At stake is a place in the final against Iranian side Persepolis, who advanced to the competition’s deciding game in October after the west Asian half of the draw was played out in a biosecure bubble in Doha.
Now it is the turn of the half of the continent that has dominated the tournament for more than a decade to determine who will go head-to-head with the club from Tehran in the decider on December 19.
The outcome, though, is far from clear as teams travel to Doha in varying states of flux.
Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta'zim have already withdrawn from the competition after being told by their government they would not be permitted to leave the country due to strict restrictions brought in to combat the pandemic.
Japanese clubs, led by J-League champions Yokohama F Marinos and also featuring Andres Iniesta’s Vissel Kobe and FC Tokyo, will be forced to juggle commitments with squads split to permit involvement in continental competition while action continues at home.
Chinese clubs, too, have obstacles to overcome.
Two-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande will be without influential midfield duo Paulinho and Zheng Zhi, who are both ruled out due to injury, although Fabio Cannavaro will be able to welcome 2015’s leading scorer Ricardo Goulart back into his squad.
Beijing Guoan will be missing Cedric Bakambu, the Chinese Super League’s top scorer for 2020, after he joined up with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to play in qualifying for the African Cup of Nations and, as a result, has not been included in the squad for the Asian Champions League.
The same fate has hit Shanghai SIPG’s striker Marko Arnautovic, who has not been selected for his club’s squad after joining up with Austria for UEFA Nations League duty.
Australia, represented by A-League champions Sydney FC as well as Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory, face the daunting prospect of taking on the continent’s best while still in pre-season and with coaches still building their squads ahead of the start of the domestic campaign in late December.
As a result of the uncertainty, South Korean clubs, who have won the title on five occasions since 2006, could be the main beneficiaries.
Both the K-League and the Korean FA Cup campaigns concluded earlier in the month, with Jeonbuk Motors lifting the title in each competition. That feat marks Jose Morais’ side out as one of the favourites for a title the club have claimed on two occasions previously.
But Korean clubs have not been without their problems too.
Ulsan Hyundai goalkeeper Jo Hyeong-woo tested positive for COVID-19 during international duty with South Korea in Austria earlier this week, further highlighting the issue that will no doubt hang over the competition right up until the final ball is kicked.
(This story refiles to correct information regarding Cedric Bakambu and Marko Arnautovic)
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Simon Cameron-Mooe and Christian Radnedge)