Kuala Lumpur: Saudi Pro League superstar Neymar will get his first taste of Asian Champions League football after last season’s runners-up Al Hilal were drawn against Iran’s Nassaji Mazandaran FC, Mumbai City FC of India and Uzbekistan’s Navbahor in the group stage on Thursday.
Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Al Ittihad’s Karim Benzema will also debut in the group stage of Asia’s premier club football competition, where they will seek to power their clubs to victory against sides from central to east Asia.
With billions of dollars in oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has been on a buying spree of sports assets as part of plans to diversify its economy and attract tourism and investment.
Al Hilal leads the AFC Champions League for most title wins, with four to its name.
With the flamboyant Brazilian playmaker Neymar in their ranks for the 2023-24 season, Al Hilal hope to win the title for a record fifth time.
Al Nassr, semi-finalists in the 2020 and 2021 editions, will play Iran’s Persepolis FC, Al-Duhail SC of Qatar and Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol.
Saudi Pro League champions Al Ittihad will have their sights set on a first Asian Champions League title since winning back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005 after securing the services of French stars Benzema and N’Golo Kante. They will take on Iran’s Sepahan SC, Air Force Club of Iraq and Uzbekistan’s AGMK FC.
Defending champions Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan, bidding for the title from the competition’s eastern division, will face China’s Wuhan Three Towns FC, Pohang Steelers of South Korea and Vietnam’s Hanoi FC.
After the draw at the Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, secretary-general Windsor John said all of the qualified teams faced tough ties across the competition.
“No easy matches,” he told AFP, adding that “a video assistant referee (VAR) system will be introduced from the group stage”.
The group stage will run from September 18 to December 13, with the knockout stage to kick off on February 12.
The two-leg final will be played on May 11 and 18, 2024.
Group A: Pakhtakor (UZB), Al Fayha FC (KSA), Ahal FC (TKM), Al Ain FC (UAE)
Group B: Al Sadd SC (QAT), FC Nasaf (UZB), Al-Faisaly (JOR), Sharjah FC (UAE)
Group C: Al Ittihad (KSA), Sepahan SC (IRN), Air Force Club (IRQ), AGMK FC (UZB)
Group D: Al Hilal SFC (KSA), Nassaji Mazandaran FC (IRN), Mumbai City FC (IND), Navbahor (UZB)
Group E: Persepolis FC (IRN), Al Duhail SC (QAT), FC Istiklol (TJK), Al Nassr (KSA)
Group F: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC (KOR), Bangkok United (THA), Lion City Sailors (SGP), Kitchee SC (HKG)
Group G: Yokohama F. Marinos (JPN), Shandong Taishan FC (CHN), Kaya FC-Iloilo (PHI), Incheon United FC (KOR)
Group H: Buriram United (THA), Ventforet Kofu (JPN), Melbourne City FC (AUS), Zhejiang FC (CHN)
Group I: Ulsan Hyundai FC (KOR), Kawasaki Frontale (JPN), Johor Darul Ta’zim (MAS), BG Pathum United (THA)
Group J: Wuhan Three Towns FC (CHN), Pohang Steelers (KOR), Hanoi FC (VIE), Urawa Red Diamonds (JPN)