Chinese Super League clubs prepare for Asian Champions League acid test

The Asian Champions League may not have the global profile of the European version, but the exploits of Chinese teams in the international transfer market is helping.

While the Middle Kingdom's three teams in the tournament that kicks off this week have genuine ambitions of success, Asia's edition has something that Europe lacks: An open competition that can be won by a healthy number of its 32 starters from various countries.

The favourites are, however, Guangzhou Evergrande and it is easy to see why. The Reds became China's first winner after defeating FC Seoul in the 2013 final, 10 years after the tournament came into existence. Incidentally, that was the last time that the eastern and western zones of the AFC -- divided for practical purposes of travel and expenses -- came together at the quarterfinal stage, now they meet in the final only.

That success was led by Marcello Lippi and repeated by Luiz Felipe Scolari two years later. A group stage exit in 2016 was a shock but has served, especially with Guangzhou winning a sixth straight domestic title, to make a third continental crown a priority.

With a settled team full of talented Chinese and foreign stars with plenty of Asian experience, plus a coach who has already won the tournament, Guangzhou know better than domestic rivals how to handle the demands of the Champions League even if the club has been quiet in the current transfer window.

Chinese Super League rivals Shanghai SIPG have won neither at home or in Asia but are desperate to change that this year, as the £100 million-plus spent on the likes of Brazilians Oscar and Hulk suggests.

Last year's debut ended in a quarterfinal thrashing at the hands of eventual winners Jeonbuk Motors and contributed, along with a somewhat disappointing domestic season, to Sven Goran-Eriksson being replaced by Andre Villas-Boas. Asian glory will be welcome but becoming Chinese champions is the priority. Competing on two fronts will not be easy but then few teams outside Europe can match Shanghai's firepower.

Like Shanghai, Jiangsu Suning would love to win a major title this season, whether it be at home or in Asia. Last season's Super League runners-up see the Champions League as important and it was a reason why Choi Yong-soo was hired as coach in the summer. The South Korean had led FC Seoul to the latter stages on a number of occasions and knows all about the competition. Having the talented Alex Teixeira and Ramires at his disposal is another bonus.

All three Chinese teams will face Japanese and South Korean opposition in the group stage. The Koreans have won more than double the continental championships than any other rival but the 2017 challenge has been weakened by the ejection of 2016 champions Jeonbuk Motors. The Greens have been banned after a club scout was found guilty of bribing referees in the K-League in 2013.

Jeonbuk would have been one of the favourites leaving Seoul as Korea's likeliest to feature in the latter stages of the competition. The capital club may have lost 2016 tournament top scorer Adriano to China, but still has experience in strikers Dejan Damjanovic and Park Chu-young as well as Kwak Tae-hwi, who captained Ulsan Horangi to the 2012 title.

Ulsan, last minute replacements for Jeonbuk, squeezed through the playoffs with a penalty shootout win over Kitchee of Hong Kong and are not at the same level as the 2012 team. Suwon Samsung Bluewings have talent but not consistency, while Jeju United are unlikely to strike too much fear into the hearts of Asian opposition.

Japanese teams have underachieved in the past few years in Asia but this time are sending their best four overseas. Kashima Antlers not only lifted an eighth title last year but reached the final of the FIFA Club World Cup to give Real Madrid a tough test.

Despite being the domestic champs, Urawa Reds and Kawasaki Frontale picked up many more points before being denied in the end of season playoffs. Urawa won the Champions League 2007 while Kawasaki have yet to come close but both have the talent to get to the latter stages. With 2008 winners Gamba Osaka, the last J.League finalist, also in the running, Japan's hopefuls have plenty of tournament experience.

Australia have three teams with 2014 champions the Western Sydney Wanderers returning to continental action. Brisbane Roar have already shown what they are capable of by eliminating Shanghai Shenhua and Carlos Tevez in the playoffs with a fine performance.

Adelaide United reached the final back in 2008 and after sending two teams to the knockout stage last year, there should be some Australian representation in it this time around.

Of the other teams in the eastern zone, Muangthong United of Thailand have the best chance of progressing to the last 16, but the Kirins chances have been hit in recent days by the injury to crucial midfielder Sarach Yooyen and the transfer of top-scorer Cleiton Silva to China. Eastern of Hong Kong face a tough opener at Guangzhou but with the team's 28 year-old female coach Chan Yuen-ting at the helm, there will be plenty of interest and attention.

That is what the western zone could do with. The Chinese resurgence just takes more focus away from a zone that was already overshadowed by the east. With the two halves only coming together in the final, there are virtually two separate tournaments with the western side overlooked outside its own backyard.

Since Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia won in 2005, the trophy has only headed back to the west once, thanks to Qatar's Al Sadd in 2011.

Al Ain and Al Ahli of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal have been finalists in the last three years and pushed the winners close but still the drought continues.