After a hiatus of more than eight months, the East Zone matches in AFC Champions League 2020 resumed in Qatar on Wednesday to decide who earns the right to challenge Iran's Persepolis for the ultimate prize in Asian club football.
The East Zone, featuring teams from China, Thailand, Australia, Korea Republic, Japan and Malaysia, was brought to a standstill by the coronavirus pandemic in March and returns inside a bubble in Qatar.
West Zone matches, featuring teams from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Uzbekistan, were hosted at the same venues from September 14 to October 3 with Persepolis booking their title game berth by defeating Al Nassr in the semifinals.
Stalled start in the East Zone
When China emerged as the epicentre of the pandemic early in the year, the four Chinese Super League clubs playing in the AFC were forced to delay their matches.
Beijing Guoan are the only CSL side to kick a ball in the ACL this season as they defeated Chiangrai United away in February. Japanese champions Yokohama F. Marinos have two wins from two matches while compatriots Vissel Kobe and South Korea's FC Seoul also have a perfect record after their openers.
The teams will play the remaining group ties in Qatar before the winners and runners-up from each of the four groups progress to the Round of 16. As was the case in the West Zone, the knockout fixtures will be played as single-legged encounters.
The quarterfinals will be on Dec. 10 followed by the semifinals on Dec. 13. The final is slated to take place at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah on Dec. 19.
What happened during the interval?
Eight months is a long time in football. It is none more evident at Chiangrai who are now the lone Southeast Asian representatives in ACL after Johor Darul Ta'zim's withdrawal. The Beetles, now six points behind BG Pathum United in Thai League 1, started their Asian campaign under Japanese coach Masami Taki, but will return with interim manager Emerson Pereira.
The Thai outfit will have a daunting task in Group E facing Beijing, Seoul and Melbourne Victory -- the latter though having seen an exodus of players, including former Sweden international Ola Toivonen, who left for Europe in May.
In Group F, Shanghai Shenhua will see the return of Kim Shin-wook from injury, but will be without Stephan El Shaarawy, Miller Bolanos and Fidel Martínez. Perth Glory lost manager Tony Popovic, a former Champions League winner with Western Sydney Wanderers, who has joined Xanthi in Greece. FC Tokyo lead the group with four points while Ulsan Hyundai have one.
Group G is a three-team affair featuring Guangzhou Evergrande, Vissel and Suwon Samsung Bluewings after Johor's exit. Fabio Cannavaro's Guangzhou will have extra motivation to fare well as they look to overcome the disappointment of losing the CSL final to Jiangsu Suning -- only the second time they have conceded the trophy in the last 10 years. Vissel, meanwhile, are languishing in 11th spot and 33 points behind J.League 1 leaders Kawasaki Frontale.
A heavyweight Group H features J.League champions Yokohama, South Korean champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, CSL giants Shanghai SIPG and A-League winners Sydney FC, minus Adam Le Fondre who left for India on loan.
Who can challenge Persepolis from the East?
Shanghai and Guangzhou will be at the forefront of title talk, but having to play so many games in a short window could take a toll on players. Jeonbuk will also be eyeing a first Champions League since 2016 after romping to a fourth straight K League 1 title at home.
Bluewings, another two-time champion from South Korea, will be looking to restart their campaign under new coach Park Kun-ha. What a start to the reign will it be if Park can guide them to a record-equaling third continental title.
Despite a four-match losing streak in the Japanese top flight during October, FC Tokyo could also challenge if they can regain their form from last season. But with the pandemic likely to pull the strings from time to time, the trophy could be anyone's to claim come Dec. 19.
Challenges aplenty as the ACL returns
UAE's Al Wahda failed to make it to Qatar for the West Zone matches due to several team members testing positive for COVID-19. Defending champions Al Hilal were kicked out after several of their players contracted the disease inside the bubble and they were unable to field the regulation number of players.
The first such issue from the East Zone already emerged as Malaysian champions JDT, who were second in Group G with a win and a defeat, had to withdraw from the tournament after being denied permission to travel by their government.
CSL sides Guangzhou Evergrande, Beijing, Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua were still waiting for travel approval from the Chinese government days before the restart.
In Australia, the A-League clubs are in a tight corner with the new domestic season set to begin just nine days after the ACL final. This means Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory or Perth Glory could be in the 14-day quarantine when the new season kicks off if any of them make it to the AFC finals.