Asian Champions League holders Ulsan to face debutants in group phase

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - AFC Champions League Final - Persepolis v Ulsan Hyundai FC - Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah, Qatar - December 19, 2020 Ulsan Hyundai FC's Sin Jin-Ho lifts the trophy as they celebrate winning the AFC Champions League REUTERS/Ibraheem Al Omari

HONG KONG (Reuters) - South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai will be among the favourites to advance to the knockout rounds of this year's Asian Champions League after the defending champions were drawn to face a pair of debutants in the competition's group phase on Wednesday.

Ulsan, who defeated Iran's Persepolis in the final of last year's competition to win the title for the second time, will face Thailand's BG Pathum United and fellow newcomers Viettel from Vietnam in Group F.

The group will be completed by the winners of a playoff featuring Australia’s Brisbane Roar, Kaya-Iloilo of the Philippines and Chinese Super League side Beijing Guoan.

Forty teams will participate in the group phase of the competition – an increase from 32 last year – with the winners of each group plus the three best runners-up from the west and east regions advancing to the last 16.

Australian champions Sydney FC face the daunting task of taking on two-time champions Jeonbuk Motors in Group H alongside former winners Gamba Osaka from Japan and Singapore’s Tampines Rovers.

Two-time champions Guangzhou FC – formerly known as Guangzhou Evergrande – take on Japanese champions Kawasaki Frontale in Group I as well as tournament newcomers United City from the Philippines. The group will be completed by the winners of the playoff between South Korea’s Daegu FC and Chiangrai United from Thailand.

In the western half of the draw, Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, who won the title in 2019, will meet Shabab Al Ahli from the United Arab Emirates as well as debutants FC Istiklol from Tajikistan and either Qatar’s Al Gharafah or AGMK from Uzbekistan.

Persepolis, who have been runners-up twice in the last three seasons, headline Group E, where they will meet Qatar’s Al Rayyan, FC Goa from India and the winners of the playoff between Al Wahda from the UAE and Iraq’s Al Zawraa.

The group phase of the competition is due to be played on a centralised basis due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with member associations asked by the Asian Football Confederation to submit bids to host the competitions in their respective regions.

Matches are scheduled to begin in April, with the knockout rounds slated to be played from mid-September. The final will be held over two legs on Nov. 21 and Nov. 27.

2021 AFC Champions League draw

Group A: Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia), Shabab Al Ahli (UAE), FC Istiklol (Tajikistan), Playoff Winner

Group B: Sharjah (UAE), Tractor FC (Iran), Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan), Playoff Winner

Group C: Al Duhail (Qatar), Al Ahli (Saudi Arabia), Esteghlal (Iran), Al Shorta (Iraq)

Group D: Al Sadd (Qatar), Al Nassr (Saudi Arabia), Al Wehdat (Jordan), Playoff Winner

Group E: Persepolis (Iran), Al Rayyan (Qatar), FC Goa (India), Playoff Winner

Group F: BG Pathum United (Thailand), Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea), Viettel (Vietnam), Playoff Winner

Group G: Jiangsu FC (China), Nagoya Grampus (Japan), Johor Darul Ta’zim (Malaysia), Playoff Winner

Group H: Jeonbuk Motors (South Korea), Gamba Osaka (Japan), Tampines Rovers (Singapore), Sydney FC (Australia)

Group I: Kawasaki Frontale (Japan), Guangzhou FC (China), United City (Philippines), Playoff Winner

Group J: Shandong Luneng (China), Port FC (Thailand), Kitchee (Hong Kong), Playoff Winner

(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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