Four Korean clubs compete for biggest prize in Asian football
The 2021 AFC Champions League group stage kicks off for the East Region today, with four Korean teams competing for the biggest prize in Asian football.
Defending champions Ulsan Hyundai FC are joined by Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Pohang Steelers and Daegu FC. All four teams are competing in the bottom five groups, representing the East Region. The top five groups, representing the West Region, already completed the group stage earlier this year.
Ulsan are drawn in Group F alongside Thai club BG Pathum United and Vietnam's Viettel. The fourth club in the group will be either China's Shanghai Port or Filipino club Kaya F.C.–Iloilo, to be decided in a playoff on Wednesday.
Ulsan's first game will be played against Viettel on June 26, followed by Pathum on June 29 and playoff winner on July 2. The four teams will then play each other again over the following week, simulating both home and away legs, although all games will actually be played at Pathum Thani Stadium in Thanyaburi to ensure that players are kept in a Covid-19 bubble.
Ulsan won the 2020 Champions League title, defeating Iranian club Persepolis F.C. 2-1 in the final to secure the win. Both goals were scored by Junior Negrao, but this year the Korean team will attempt to repeat that success without the star Brazilian forward, who moved to Chinese side Changchun Yatai this season.
Ulsan do still have talismanic midfielder Yoon Bit-garam, the MVP for the 2020 Champions League, who created a tournament-topping 22 chances throughout last year's competition.
Prior to last year's win, Ulsan reached the Round of 16 at the 2019 and 2018. Their only other championship title was in 2012, when they beat Saudi club Al-Ahli 3-0 in the final.
The Pohang Steelers were drawn in Group G alongside Nagoya Grampus of Japan, Johor Darul Ta'zim or Malaysia and Ratchaburi FC of Thailand.
Pohang played their first game tonight against Ratchaburi, the opening game of the eastern leg of the tournament.
The Steelers have competed in the Champions League eight times, winning the tournament in 2009. Their last appearance was in 2016, when they exited in the group stage. The Steelers have considerably more experience at the tournament than the rest of the group, with Ratchaburi making its first appearance, Johor its second and Nagoya its fourth.
After Ratchaburi, the Steelers will face Nagoya on June 25 and Johor on June 28. The four teams will then play each other again, completing the group stage by July 7. All Group G games will be played at Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand.
Jeonbuk will be playing in a fairly competitive Group H alongside Japanese club Gamba Osaka, Tampines Rovers FC of Singapore and Chiangrai United of Thailand. All of their games will be played in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Jeonbuk have appeared in the Champions League 14 times, winning in 2006 and 2016, but have been fairly unsuccessful recently. They have only won two of their last nine games in the continental league, dropping out of last year's tournament after finishing third in Group H.
This year Jeonbuk will start their campaign against Chiangrai on June 25, before taking on Osaka on June 28 and Tampines on July 1. The four teams will finish their second legs on July 10.
Daegu FC round off the Korean representation at the 2021 Champions League, appearing in Group I alongside Japanese club Kawasaki Frontale, United City of the Philippines and Chinese side Beijing Guoan. Group I will also play all of its games in Tashkent.
Daegu is the least experienced of the Korean sides competing this year, having only qualified for the continental tournament once before, in 2019. The Korean club has never made it out of the group stage.
After finishing the 2020 K League 1 season in fifth place, Daegu earned a shot at the Champions League on a technicality, after fourth-place finisher Gimcheon Sangmu FC was relegated to the K League 2 under league rules that force a team to drop to the second tier if it changes its host city. Sangmu moved from Sangju to Gimcheon, so lost its place in the top tier and in the Champions League.
Daegu will start their tournament with a game against Kawasaki on June 26, before going on to face United City on June 29 and Beijing on July 2. All Group I games will be finished by July 11.
The top team from each group and the three top-ranked second-place teams will advance to the knockout stage in September. Teams are still separated by region in the Round of 16, with the eight qualifying western teams — Istiklol, Persepolis, Sharjah, Al-Wahda, Esteghlal, Al Hilal, Al-Nassr and Tractor — already drawn in games for Sept. 13 and 14.
The eastern teams will play their Round of 16 games on Sept. 14 and 15, with the quarterfinals to begin later that month.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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