Asian Champions League Preliminary Round Preview

The Asian Champions League is often overlooked by a good majority of football fans in Asia, but not me. Unbeknownst to most of my friends, I enjoy the competition. I don’t enjoy it as much as the AFC Cup [Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League], but that’s because I root for the Southeast Asian teams that feature more prominently in that competition. That being said, the Preliminary rounds of the Asian Champions League consists of 4 matches and 2 of which see Southeast Asian teams pitted against each other. The Preliminary Rounds offer these teams, minnows in comparison to the giants from China, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, a shot at a place in the Champions League group stages.

Even though it is highly improbable that any of these teams will go on to win the competition, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few upsets are pulled along the way. I remember when my local club, SAFFC [now Warriors FC], made it through to the Group Stages in 2009 after easing through the preliminary rounds. Even though they lost all their matches, I will always remember their 1-1 draw with Shanghai Shenhua at home. Maybe one of these teams can emulate the once mighty Warriors FC.

Ceres-Negros [PHI] vs Shan United [MYA]

Ceres-Negros will look forward to this tie given how Shan United have not once beaten them in the past 2 years. Drawn in the same AFC Cup group in 2018 and 2019, Ceres has beaten Shan in all 4 outings, including a colossal 5-0 thrashing last May in Thuwanna YTC Stadium in Myanmar.

Despite their previous shortcomings in Asia, Shan have since made serious acquisitions in the form of centre-back and Kyrgyzstan international Daniel Tagoe from Bangladeshi side Chittagong Abahani and Liberian centre forward Keith Nah from Ayeyawady United. Joining them are Ghanian Defensive midfielder Yakubu Abudbakar and defender Nyein Chan from Rakhine United. Keith Nah has been formidable in the Myanmar National League having already scored on his debut for Shan while previously notching up 25 goals in 39 games for Ayeyawady. He is definitely the main threat to the Ceres defence.

However, while Shan have bolstered the squad with new blood, so has Ceres. The club has made a slew of quality signings in the form of Mark Hartman, Joshua Grommen and Hikaru Minegishi. These players together with the experience of Filipino icon James Young Husband and Senegalese forward Robert Lopez, make Ceres a force to contend with this year. Ceres may suffer from a lack of match fitness unlike their opponents since Shan have already played their first game of the National football League on Friday [10th Jan], Ceres outclass Shan United in every department and should win the match comfortably. Even if they were to fail to progress to the group stages in the later rounds, Ceres have the muscle to make it far once again in the AFC Cup.

Prediction: Ceres 3-0 Shan United

Tampines Rovers [SIN] vs Bali United [IDN]

Tampines Rovers finished last season 3rd in the Premier League. Still, because Albirex Nigata’s satellite team and DPMM FC, both foreign clubs, are unable to take part in continental competition, the Stags take up the ACL preliminary round berth. The Stags did well in last season’s AFC Cup campaign, only narrowly missing out on progression to Hanoi FC via goal difference.

However, the club has lost three key players who formed the core of their team last term. Shahdan Sulaiman, Zulfadhmi Suzliman, and Ryutaro Megumi have left the club, and their replacements are promising but mostly inexperienced by comparison. The Stags still have the ever consistent Jordan Webb in their ranks and have experienced heads in Yasir Hanapi and Singaporean football veteran Daniel Bennet, who just turned 42. Furthermore, this season the club boasts several promising young individuals – so much so, they have been dubbed “the Ajax of Singapore.”

However, while I am passionate about supporting my local teams, the Stags pale in comparison to the Liga I Champions. Bali United put on a strong showing last term and would expect to continue their dominant displays in the league. The club has retained their foreign imports and added decent local players into their squad. Bali United should win this game, but I will still be rooting for a Tampines victory.

Prediction: Tampines Rovers 1-2 Bali United

Chennai City [IND] vs Al Riffa [BHR]

As a Singaporean, it brought me great joy seeing Akbar Nawas, a fellow Singaporean, manage and guide Chennai City to the I-League title in 2019. However, Chennai City has started this season poorly judging by last season’s standards. While they lie 4th with a game in hand over 3rd place Punjab FC – their results [W2 D2 L2] have been inconsistent. The Tamil Nadu club pulled off a heroic feat last season under Akbar Nawas and need to tap into that as they prepare for their preliminary round match.

The problem is that a large core of the team that won the title last year has departed. Amongst the departures is probably the most pivotal player in that title-winning team, Spanish Manzi. The Spanish forward scored an impressive 21 goals, including five hat tricks. The club doesn’t appear to be making it to the group stage but don’t discount them just yet.

The I-League champions can take heart though in the fact that their Bahranian counterparts have started the campaign poorly as well. Winning the Bahraini Premier League for the first time in 5 years, Al Riffa commenced this season with two losses before winning their last two games. They sit in 7th position in the league.

Granted, it is early days in both leagues, and both teams would finish higher up than where they currently sit. However, their performances thus far provide an assessment of what we can expect this Tuesday. While Chennai might pull off an upset, the players in their squad are talented but largely inexperienced in continental affairs. That being said Al Riffa would most likely narrowly scrape through to the next round of qualification.

Prediction; Chennai City 0-1 Al Riffa

Al-Faisaly [JOR] vs Kuwait SC [KUW]

This match pits two Middle Eastern titans against each other. Both teams won their respective domestic leagues with relative ease. However, I would have to go with Kuwait SC for this match. Choosing Kuwait SC to advance would come as quite a surprise given how Jordanian Al-Jazeera prevented the Kuwait club from advancing past the group stages in last season’s AFC Cup.

Kuwait SC has been the most dominant team in Kuwait for the past five years, winning the Kuwait Premier League on four occasions and the last 3 in a row. In last year’s qualification, Iranian giants Zob Ahan SC beat them 1-0 [after extra time] in a tight encounter. This season they have recruited some quality players. They join a team that already consists of Abdoul Sissoko, the younger brother of former Liverpool and Juventus midfielder Mohamed Sissoko.

It will most definitely be a hard-fought contest. Yet, I believe the Kuwaiti champions have the necessary steel to overcome the Jordanian Champions and pull what many others would deem an upset.

Prediction: Kuwait SC 1-0 Al-Faisaly

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