Sharjah Club, UAE's current league champions, have been clubbed in a tough group in AFC Champions League this year. Image Credit: Supplied photo

Dubai: The UAE’s top four teams will have their task cut out following the announcement of the draw for the 2021 AFC Champions League, held in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

South Korea’s Defending Ulsan Hyundai FC – who beat Iran’s Persepolis FC in the 2020 final to lift the AFC Champions League trophy for the second time - will have to face Thailand’s BG Pathum United, Vietnam’s Viettel FC and a play-off winner in Group F.

For the first time, the 2021 AFC Champions League will see 40 teams in the group stage - an increase of eight - with one additional group each in the East and West Zones.

Shabab Al Ahli Dubai, one of two UAE teams that advanced to the knock-out stages last year, will have to contend with strong contenders Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol and a play-off winner between Qatar’s Al Gharafa and Uzbekistan’s AGMK FC, in Group A.

Group B comprises of UAE’s league champions Sharjah, Iran’s Tractor FC, Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan and a play-off winner from Al Wehda FC, Saudi Arabia and Air Force Club, Iraq.

Another two teams from the UAE could possibly make the cut in the main draw of the 2021 AFC Champions League provided they come through the play-offs that are to be held a week earlier before the main round matches start.

Runners-up in 2018 and 2020, Persepolis of Iran have been drawn with Al Rayyan of Qatar, FC Goa from India and a play-off winner between the UAE’s Al Wahda and Al Zawaraa of Iraq, while Al Ain could take their place in Group D provided they can beat Iran’s Foolad Khouzestan FC and then occupy their place alongside Al Sadd SC of Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr and Al Wehdat of Jordan.

The time-frame for competition matches has also been spelt out with the 2021 AFC Champions League kicking off with the preliminary stage on April 7. The group stages, on the other hand, are scheduled to kick-off from April 14 to 30 (West Asia) and from April 21 to May (East Asia) at centralised venues.

The Round of 16 will be held on September 13-14, while the quarter-finals will be on September 27-28. The semi-finals will be two-legged encounters on October 19 and 26, while the home and away final will be played on November 21 and 27.

2021 AFC Champions League Draw

Group A: Al Hilal (KSA), Shabab Al Ahli Dubai (UAE), FC Istiklol (TJK), QAT-UZB P/O winner

Group B: Sharjah (UAE), Tractor FC (IRN), Pakhtakor (UZB), KSA-IRQ P/O winner

Group C: Al Duhail SC (QAT), Al Ahli Saudi (KSA), Esteghlal (IRN), Al Shorta (IRQ)

Group D: Al Sadd SC (QAT), Al Nassr (KSA), Al Wehdat (JOR), IRN-UAE P/O winner

Group E: Persepolis FC (IRN), Al Rayyan (QAT), FC Goa (IND), UAE-IRQ P/O winner

Group F: Ulsan Hyundai FC (KOR), BG Pathum United (THA), Viettel FC (VIE), AUS-PHI-CHN P/O winner

Group G: Jiangsu FC (CHN), Nagoya Grampus (JPN), Johor Darul Ta’zim (MAS), KOR-THA P/O winner

Group H: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (KOR), Gamba Osaka (JPN), Tampines Rovers (SIN), Sydney FC (AUS)

Group I: Kawasaki Frontale (JPN), Guangzhou FC CHN), United City FC (PHI), KOR-THA P/O winner

Group J: Shandong Luneng FC (CHN), Port FC (THA), Kitchee SC (HKG), JPN-AUS-MYA P/O Winner