LONDON: The time for dreaming is over and the football is about to begin — in West Asia at least — as the 2021 AFC Champions League kicks off on Wednesday. With a few changes to the format.
For the first time, the tournament has been expanded from 32 to 40 teams, not great timing in the middle of a global pandemic, but there are still three from Saudi Arabia in the mix.
And while the group stage welcomes eight more teams, only 16, as before, will make it through to the second round.
This means that only the group winners are certain of progression along with the three best runners-up in the five western zone groups.
As before Asia’s premier club competition remains split into two halves, western and eastern, until the final itself brings the two together.
There are other differences. Travel restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic mean each group is taking place in one city over an intensive period of six games in 16 days.
The teams that handle this schedule the best will prosper and that is good news for Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli who are all playing at home.
Al-Hilal have the best chance of all three in Group A with the downside perhaps being that the 2019 champions are in the middle of a fierce domestic title race.
Their last game before the Champions League was last Frida’s defeat against Al-Ittihad in third and the first game after the group finishes comes against Al-Shabab, who are in second, on May 7.
Losing Salem Al-Dawsari to injury is a blow but there is enough talent available to Brazilian coach Rogerio Micale, who has yet to really win over fans since replacing Razvan Lucescu in February.
The Riyadh giants are in an interesting group which features, for the first time ever, two teams from Central Asia.
Tajikistan powerhouse Istiklol have made waves in the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier competition, and are now making their debut in the big event.
Al-Hilal’s defence will have to keep an eye on prolific striker Manuchekhr Dzhalilov.
AGMK of Uzbekistan are also making their Champions League debut and while they are not the strongest team in the country, Saudi Arabia are in the same World Cup qualification group as the Uzbeks, and Hilal players will know not to underestimate the opposition.
The group is completed by Shabab Al-Ahli. The Dubai team, runners-up in 2015, is full of talent, led by former UAE national team boss Mahdi Ali and features former Al-Hilal star Omar Abdulrahman.
All in all however, it would be a surprise if the three-time champions didn’t make it out of the group.
Al-Nassr have a tougher-looking proposition. First and foremost is the presence of Al-Sadd. Coach Xavi Hernandez, nailed-on to be a future Barcelona boss, has just led the 2011 continental champions to the Qatar Stars League title and did so without losing a game.
His sights are well and truly set on Asia and with former Arsenal star Santi Cazorla in stunning form, Al Sadd are one of the favorites.
Foolad of Iran will be no pushovers and Jordan’s Al-Wehdat, making a first appearance in the tournament, will be hard to beat.
The Riyadh giants, who reached the last four in 2020, have had an up and down season and are looking to Asia to bring some joy for their fans.
So much so, that last Friday Alen Horvat was fired as head coach and replaced by Mano Menezes in time for the start of the group matches.
The first priority for the former Brazil boss is to take Al-Nassr to the knockout stages.
His clashes with Xavi at Al-Sadd will not just be fascinating but probably pivotal.
Al-Ahli complete the trio and like Al-Nassr are heading into Asia off the back of a disappointing domestic season and have also just appointed a new coach.
Laurentiu Reghecampf led Al-Hilal to the final of the 2014 edition and that infamous loss to Western Sydney Wanderers.
The Romanian now returns to the country to take over the struggling Jeddah club, which have lost its last six games.
If that wasn’t worrying enough, though Asia offers a chance of a change and a respite from domestic woes, Al-Ahli’s group is a tough one.
Two-time winners Esteghlal of Iran reached the last 16 before being knocked out by Pakhtakor last year and will be hoping to go further this time around.
A strong Al-Duhail team finished second in Qatar to the all-conquering Al-Sadd and while Al-Shorta of Iraq are the outsiders, football in the country is going through a resurgence right now and they can be counted on to cause an upset or two.
For Al-Ahli, finalists in 2012, getting to the second round would be a fine achievement and a great way for the new boss to start his spell.
At the moment, the odds are against it but the AFC Champions League is nothing if not unpredictable.
Despite that, predicting that Al-Hilal will be the best performing Saudi side still seems like a relatively safe forecast to make.