Bienvenido Maranon embracing ACL challenge with United City

Bienvenido Maranon is currently the all-time top scorer in the AFC Cup - the second-tier club competition in Asian football - after scoring a staggering 35 goals in just over four campaigns. Lagardere Sports

As Philippine football prepares to appear in the AFC Champions League for the first time, United City attacker Bienvenido Maranon is relishing the opportunity to prove that he and his team belong at the highest level.

Long considered minnows of Asia, both Philippines' national team and club sides have made great strides in recent times.

With the expansion of the ACL to 40 teams this year, the Philippines were awarded an automatic group-stage berth that United City claimed by winning the domestic league last term -- and they were joined by Kaya FC-Iloilo on Wednesday when their compatriots saw off an undermanned Shanghai Port in the qualifying playoffs.

Both teams get their campaigns underway on Saturday, and United City appear to have a real task in their hands, not just in their opener against South Korea's Daegu FC but with heavyweights Beijing Guoan and Kawasaki Frontale also on the horizon.

But United City -- in their previous iteration as Ceres-Negros -- have shown an inclination of causing upsets.

They did just in the qualifying playoffs for the competition three years ago when they pulled off a 3-2 upset at Brisbane Roar, a match from which Maranon believes they can draw inspiration.

"We're here to enjoy [the experience] and learn for the future, because these will be very good moments for us," Maranon told ESPN.

"I think our group is the toughest group. If we had been in a different group, maybe we could enjoy more success.

"We know that coming up against a Chinese, South Korean and Japanese team, they are in a different league. Maybe we're a bit lucky that Beijing are playing with mostly under-23 players, so there's an opportunity to take some points.

"We come here with nothing to lose like when we went to Brisbane; playing without pressure and sometimes it's better.

"It will be different from that match as we've lost many experienced players and we will miss them, but it's time for the young Filipino players to step up. We have many good young players but we need to give them time, and these games are a very good opportunity for them and the future of Philippine football, as they will learn even faster.

"The results don't matter that much. We just want to improve and make the Filipinos proud that they have us in this competition."

It certainly will not hurt United City's prospects having a marksman of Maranon's calibre leading the line, as he has spent the past few seasons establishing himself as one of Southeast Asia's deadliest forwards.

In just four-and-a-half seasons, the Spaniard became the top scorer in the AFC Cup's -- Asia's second-tier club competition -- with 35 goals.

And although he recently turned 35, Maranon is showing no signs of slowing down as he believes he is now at the peak of his powers.

"Sergio Ramos said in an interview that 35 years old is the new 27-years-old, and that's how I feel," the former Cadiz man said.

"I take care of my diet and body and have been lucky not to have too many injuries, so I find that I'm now having my best performance. When you take of yourself, everything comes easy so I'm sure I will play for a long time more, even five years.

"I prefer to see myself in this competition [the ACL] because this isn't the same as the AFC Cup. This is the highest level in Asia and I want to show I belong here.

"I'm enjoying my football more than ever and I believe I can do well in this competition."