Manager profile: The Romanian manager Cosmin Olaroiu is arguably the best manager in West Asia, possessing experience, tactical intelligence and tenacity in his team talks that are unmatched by any other manager in the Middle East. Olaroiu is not unfamiliar with this competition, as he took Al-Ahli to the final in 2016.
Tactical set-up: A 4-2-2-2 formation with narrow, interchanging wingers – amongst them the mobile maestro Everton Ribeiro who pops up in pockets of space around the pitch.
Current League Position: 3rd (UAE Arabian Gulf League)
Their story this season: After a rocky start to the 2016/17 season, Al-Ahli have hit their best league form at the perfect time as they head into the 2017 AFC Champions League. They do have one key omission, and that is an Asian player after the departure of Kwon Kyung Kwon in January to China.
What do fans expect? With Emirati clubs dominating West Asia recently, a challenge for a spot in the final is the least of their expectations.
Manager profile: The second Romanian manager in this group, Constantin Galca, will lead Al-Taawoun into their first ever AFC Champions League campaign. Fans have started to come behind him as they enter a crucial period.
Tactical set-up: A 4-2-3-1 set-up which relies on the direct movement of the wingers towards goal to compensate for attacking midfielder Jehad Al-Hussain’s more creative role.
Current League Position: 6th (Saudi Pro League)
Their story this season: After a wonderful end to the 2015/16 season, Al-Taawoun didn’t fare greatly with Dario Kalzic and sacked him only four months into the season. Despite Galca’s arrival, Al-Taawoun haven’t managed to hit their stride with 5 losses in their last 10 league games.
What do fans expect? With the departure of Al-Taawoun hero Jose Manuel Gomes at the end of last season, no wonders are expected although a respectable fight for a knockout spot is expected.
Manager profile: Esteghlal appointed former player Alireza Mansourian as their new manager in the summer. Mansourian already has a pedigree in the ACL, taking Naft Tehran to the quarter final for the first time in their history in 2015, losing to eventual runners up Al-Ahli of UAE.
Key players: Esteghlal have two or three players who are crucial to the way they play. Iran international, Omid Ebrahimi, is the man who keeps their midfield ticking from the centre of the park. Also, centre forward Kaveh Rezaei is a key figure in the team, he scores goals but also creates many chances for his midfielders.
Tactical set-up: Esteghlal predominantly have played with narrow diamond in 4-4-2, a system where the front two and the attacking midfielder have a lot of freedom and have the permission to roam. But they can also play with a 4-3-3 away from home.
New arrivals: One of their key signings has been 24-year-old striker, Kaveh Rezaei. The former Zob Ahan Striker has scored 7 goals this season but contributes a lot more to their attack.
Current League Position: 3rd (Persian Gulf Pro League)
Their story this season: Esteghlal started the season with a lot of expectations but they struggled to live up to the hype around them in pre-season. They failed to win the first 6 games of the season and fell behind in the title race. Since January, their form has picked up extremely well and have now won 5 games on the bounce including a 3-2 victory in Tehran Derby.
What do fans / media expect? Expectations in Asia are always high for the two times continental champions. A failure to qualify from the group stages will be seen as a complete disaster for Esteghlal, and their manager has already stated that this club has to shine in Asia, so they’ll be confident that they can spring a surprise or two and reach the latter stages of the competition.
Manager profile: Tunisian head coach Fathi Al-Jabal is no stranger to Saudi football and was the mastermind behind Al-Fateh’s shock league title win in 2013. Can he do it once again, this time on a continental level?
Tactical set-up: 4-4-2 formation with two defensive-minded central midfielders looking to block the opposition’s dominance of central spaces.
Current League Position: 13th (Saudi Pro League)
Their story this season: Al-Fateh have, inconveniently, endured their worst ever season in the professional era of Saudi football with only 3 wins in 19 games and on the verge of relegation.
What do fans expect? While a run in the AFC Champions League would be great for the club, Fathi Al-Jabal has insisted that concentration not be shifted from the league where they fight relegation.
Manager profile: The one and only Henk Ten Cate needs no introduction, he has developed youngsters and created a monstrous Al-Jazira side since his arrival in January 2016.
Tactical set-up: 4-2-3-1 which aims to hurt teams on the counter attack, thanks to the pace on offer by Ali Mabkhout, Ailton Almeida and Khalfan Mubarak.
Current League Position: 1st (UAE Arabian Gulf League)
Their story this season: Al-Jazira are all but set to win their 2nd league title this season after Al-Wasl’s 1-1 draw put them 9 points clear of any other competitor with 7 weeks to go. Defensively sound and monstrous in attack; Al-Jazira have been revitalized under Ten Cate.
What do fans expect? As Al-Jazira are by far the best Emirati team at the current time, qualification from this relatively easy group is a must.
Manager profile: Djamel Belmadi is no stranger to Qatari football, managing the national team up until the 2015 Asian Cup before taking over Lekhwiya in mid-2015.
Tactical set-up: Belmadi can alternate between a variety of formations but has largely stuck to a 4-2-3-1 with Nam Tae Hee behind the striker.
Current League Position: 2nd (Qatar Stars League)
Their story this season: Lekhwiya are going head to head with Al-Sadd for top spot with both teams just losing once this season, however Al-Sadd have the benefit of no Asian Champions League football which makes their title challenge relatively easier than Lekhwiya’s.
What do fans expect? Qualification for the group in the midst of challenging Al-Sadd and Al-Rayyan for the Qatari League title.
Manager profile: Following their incredible success last season, manager Abdullah Veisi left the club and his assistant, Sirous Pourmousavi, took over the team. This is his first managerial experience.
Tactical set-up: Pourmousavi has kept a similar shape to last season, playing a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1. The only difference is that the team is a lot more creative and threatening on the ball compared to last season where they were mostly a counter attacking team. Having Aloys Nong and Arash Afshin gives him the option of putting two strikers up front if they’re chasing the game.
New arrivals: Cameroonian striker, Aloys Nong, joined the club in January to fill the gap left by Rahim Zohaivi who joined Qatar’s Al-Shahaniya. He’s had an acceptable start to his career in Esteghlal Khuzestan and remains one of their key players in front of goal.
Their story this season: Following their amazing title winning run last season, the team was torn apart since summer. They lost key players such as Rahim Zohaivi and Fernando Jesus as well as their manager Abdollah Veisi. They’ve been relinquishing in mid table so far this season and they’ve been looking forward to representing province of Khuzestan in the ACL.
Current League Position: 8th (Persian Gulf Pro League)
What do fans expect? There’s not much expected from this team. They have one of the lowest budgets in the league which makes the task even harder for them on the continental stage. But what can be expected is that this team will work extremely hard in every game, they’re a tight-knit bunch and they boast great local support in Ahvaz. Getting out of the group stages can be seen as a huge achievement for a club with such small financial capabilities.
Manager profile: Christian Gross returned to Al-Ahli Jeddah during the season after Jose Manuel Gomes was sacked, looking to help the side repeat their successes of last season (league, cup and super cup win) while furthering themselves in Asia.
Tactical set-up: A classic 4-2-3-1 which relies on wing play and getting the ball up to the big man in Omar Al-Somah, but with the addition of Saad Abdul-Amir over the winter the Greens are expected to improve their build-up play from deep.
Current League Position: 3rd (Saudi Pro League)
Their story this season: After a shaky start with Jose Manuel Gomes in charge Al-Ahli re-signed Christian Gross. A period of good form followed in January 2017 but two losses in a row to Al-Qadisiyah and Al-Nassr leave them in 3rd and a good 7 points behind league leaders Al-Hilal.
What do fans expect? Qualification to the knockout round is a must after last season’s disappointing exit from the group stages, and with the league title now seeming unlikely the ACL is needed to salvage their season.
Manager profile: New coach Zoran Mamic comes into this competition with high hopes and an interesting project with Al-Ain, the club which he left Al-Nassr (KSA) abruptly for just a few weeks ago.
Tactical set-up: Omar Abdulrahman is, obviously, the focal point of the 4-2-3-1 formation which can often be changed to a 4-1-4-1 depending on the role of Lee Myung Joo in game.
Current League Position: 3rd (UAE Arabian Gulf League)
Their story this season: After a great start to the season, Al-Ain’s season was demolished mentally due to the tough loss suffered against Jeonbuk in the ACL2016 final. They’ve exited both domestic cups and have lost ground on league leaders Al-Jazira.
What do fans expect? Another appearance in the final, but this time taking the trophy back home for the 2nd time.
Manager profile: Mojtaba Hosseini is another assistant promoted to take the top job. Following the departure of Yahya Golmohammadi earlier this season, Hosseini stepped up to take his first ever managerial job.
Tactical set-up: Zob Ahan still play with their traditional 4-2-3-1 which they’ve been playing for a couple of seasons. The wingers act as inside forwards and support the sole striker in attack.
Current standing: 4th (Persian Gulf Pro League)
Their story this season: Despite the departure of influential manager Yahya Golmohammadi earlier in the season, Zob Ahan have had a decent season under Mojataba Hosseini. They’re currently fighting for a top 3 finish in the league.
What do fans expect: Zob Ahan has a relatively young team with some talented players, but they are unlikely to reach the latter stages of the competition. Qualification from group stages will be seen as targets reached.
Manager profile: 62-year-old Croatian manager, Branko Ivankovic, has been in charge of Persepolis for almost two years. He’s a very measured and composed figure and since his arrival he has transformed Persepolis into a powerful force once again as they come into the competition with high expectations.
Tactical set-up: Persepolis play with a 4-2-3-1, with two central midfielders that tend to be Mohsen Mosalman and Kamal Kamyabinia. The arrival of Soroush Rafiei in January means the attacking midfielder can play in the number 10 role and provide support for Mehdi Taremi who will lead the line.
Current standings: 1st (Persian Gulf Pro League)
Their story this season: Persepolis started the season as the favourites for the league title and they have not disappointed. They have been by far the best team in the past 6 months as they boast a 9-point gap to the 2nd placed team. They look like they have the title in the bag so their attention is firmly on the continental stage.
What do fans/media expect: Many in Iran believe Persepolis can mount a serious challenge for the AFC Champions League, and it’s not hard to see why. Fans certainly will back their team to do well and it will not be a surprise to see the Reds in the latter stages of the competition.
Manager profile: Al-Rayyan’s manager Michael Laudrup needs no introduction, as he continues his time in Qatar with last season’s champions Al-Rayyan.
Tactical set-up: A dynamic 4-3-3 which places great emphasis on the goalscoring threat of the front three in Soria, Tabata and Garcia.
Current League Position: 3rd (Qatari Stars League)
Their story this season: Al-Rayyan haven’t been as monstrous as they were last season when they tore every single team in their way apart, but they’re still going close and are challenging for the league title albeit from afar with them trailing 6 points behind joint league leaders Al-Sadd and Lekhwiya.
What do fans expect? Al-Rayyan, the “raheeb” (awesome), are back to playing Asian football. An early exit is certainly not what the fans expect, but hopes are high for a deep run.
Manager profile: Entering his first stint in Asian football just a few months ago when he signed for Al-Hilal, Ramon Diaz leads Al-Hilal with high hopes coming into the 2017 Asian Champions League.
Tactical set-up: Alternating between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-3-1-2 since his arrival at the club, Diaz has proven to be very versatile with his tactics but is expected to use the latter with the addition of striker Omar Khribin over the winter break.
Current League Position: 1st (Saudi Pro League)
Their story this season: Whether Al-Hilal could finally win the league title after some time was questionable during Gustavo Matossas’ time at the club, but one thing he did get them before his sacking was points. Ramon Diaz has built upon that and continued flying high, even beating the Champions Al-Ahli at their home stadium.
What do fans expect? With Al-Hilal, there is no expectation. A Champions League win is a must.
Manager profile: Javier Aguirre led Al-Wahda to a successful first season, winning the Arabian Gulf Cup and finishing 3rd in the league. However, second season syndrome may have caught up to him.
Tactical set-up: Al-Wahda are one of the only teams in the UAE Arabian Gulf League that like to press from the front. They use a 4-2-3-1 formation with Balasz Dszudszak cutting in from the left and Ismael Matar playing behind the striker in place of the absent Valdivia.
Current League Position: 5th (UAE Arabian Gulf League)
Their story this season: Al-Wahda have been average in the league this season, sitting in 5th place with a very low points total; sitting far behind the top 4. However, they have reached the semi-final of the UAE President’s Cup which is a possible ticket to the ACL 2018 should they win it.
What do fans expect? Fans have vividly remembered their fairytale run to the semi-finals in 2007, but whether they can repeat that this year is a matter of experience. Al-Ahli Dubai did it under similar circumstances in 2015, but with the super coach Cosmin Olaroiu.