Central Coast Mariners have welcomed their Asian Champions League draw.
The Mariners were drawn to face J.League heavyweights Kawasaki Frontale, Tianjin Teda of the Chinese Super League and Korean FA Cup winners Pohang Steelers in Group H of Asia’s premier and most prestigious club competition.
The Mariners managed to avoid the challenge of reining champions Gamba Osaka, who were slotted into Group F, unquestionably the toughest of the four East Asian groups, while Hyundai A-League rivals the Newcastle Jets were drawn into Group E, which also includes Beijing Guoan, Ulsan Horang-i and Nagoya Grampus.
"The Newcastle Jets and ourselves stayed away from the more difficult groups and it would be fair to say that we’re quite happy with the draw," said Mariners Football Manager Lawrie McKinna from Dubai.
"We’ve got some basic feedback on all of our opponents and now we’ll explore our contacts in China, Japan and Korea in the hope of learning more about each of them.
"All the teams are going to be strong, the J.League teams are obviously the most fancied and will always be there or thereabouts, but we’re not going to be putting any team on a pedestal, we’ll be going out there to compete, do well and hopefully get out of the group."
Though limited in their success domestically and on the continent – having not once secured a major trophy in Japan and having qualified only once for an AFC Champions League campaign, Kawasaki have been one of the J.League’s quiet achievers in recent years after first gaining promotion to Japan’s top flight in 1999.
In 2008, with 24-year-old DPR Korea national team starlet Chong Tese leading the charge alongside regular Japanese international Kengo Nakamura, Kawasaki achieved their equal highest ever J.League finish and thus qualified for their second tilt at the AFC Champions League.
Kawasaki’s light blue and black playing strip is inspired by their sister club relationship with iconic Brazilian outfit Gremio.
The Pohang Steelers have a proud history domestically and continentally and loom as a serious challenger for the AFC Champions League 2009 title.
Boasting more silverware than any other Korean side that has qualified for the AFC Champions League 2009, the Pohang Steelers are also perhaps more recognisable to Australian audiences than most, having battled with Adelaide United on two occasions throughout the group stage of the AFC Champions League 2008 tournament – conceding defeat on both instances.
The Steelers sealed their fifth continental berth upon claiming their second Korean FA Cup – where Hwang Jin-Sung and Kim Jae-Sung slotted goals either side of half time to secure a 2-0 triumph over Gyeongnam FC.
Attendances at Pohang’s Steelyard home ground – the first arena to be constructed specifically for football in Korea – are modest by K-League standards and reached an average of 11,811 in 2008.
Unquestionably the least fancied qualifier from the Chinese Super League (CSL), Tianjin have no domestic success to reflect on after a decade in China’s top-flight but have accumulated a no-less proud history that has attracted a truly cosmopolitan mix of players to the CSL.
Over the past ten years, Tianjin have utilised players from far and wide, including talents from Belarus, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Hungary, Nigeria, Romania, Serbia, South Africa, Turkey, Uruguay and Zaire.
One such import may well be the key to Tianjin’s AFC Champions League 2009 chances – giant 27-year-old Brazilian marksman Eber Luis. Eber Luis finished the 2008 CSL season with a leading tally of 14 goals despite missing a third of the season through suspension.
Standing at 191cm and with considerable experience in his Brazilian homeland, Eber Luis will be among the imports to watch in Asia this year.
"It’s obviously going to be very hard and it’s amazing to see what Adelaide United achieved this year," said McKinna.
"There’s a big buzz about the AFC Champions League here in Dubai and back at home and we’re as excited as anyone ahead of what will be a fantastic tournament for our whole club to experience."
AFC Champions League 2009 Groups
Group A – Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia), Bunyodkor (Uzbekistan), Al Ahli (United Arab Emirates), Saba Battery (IR Iran)
Group B – Persepolis (IR Iran), Al Shabab (Saudi Arabia), Al Gharafa (Qatar), West Asian Qualifier TBC
Group C – Al Jazira (United Arab Emirates), Esteghlal (IR Iran), Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia), Umm Salal (Qatar)
Group D – Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan), Al Shabab (United Arab Emirates), Sepahan (IR Iran), Al Ettifaq (Saudi Arabia)
Group E – Ulsan Horang-i (Korea Republic), Newcastle Jets (Australia), Beijing Guoan (China PR), Nagoya Grampus (Japan)
Group F – Gamba Osaka (Japan), FC Seoul (Korea Republic), Sriwijaya (Indonesia), Shandong Luneng Taishan (China PR)
Group G – Shanghai Shenhua (China PR), Kashima Antlers (Japan), Suwon Bluewings (Korea Republic), East Asian Qualifier TBC
Group H – Central Coast Mariners (Australia), Tianjin Teda (China PR), Kawasaki Frontale (Japan), Pohang Steelers (Korea Republic)