The 2023/24 AFC Champions League will undoubtedly attract plenty of extra attention this season following a spectacular summer of spending in the Middle East.
Saudi Pro League clubs have been splashing the cash during the transfer window to snap up a ton of big-name players from the top leagues in Europe.
Competing with their financial muscle will likely prove difficult for other teams in the competition, which gets underway in earnest during September.
With the preliminary and play-off stages now complete, we look at the schedule and draw for the rest of the tournament, before assessing some of the main contenders.
AFC Champions League 2023/24: Schedule
- Matchday 1: September 18-20.
- Matchday 2: October 2-4.
- Matchday 3: October 23-25.
- Matchday 4: November 6-8.
- Matchday 5: November 27-29.
- Matchday 6: December 4-6 & 12-13.
- Round of 16: February 12-14 & 19-21.
- Quarter-finals: March 4-6 & 11-13.
- Semi-finals: April 16-17 & 23-24.
- Final: May 11 & 18.
AFC Champions League 2023/24: Group Stage Draw
- 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).
The ten group winners automatically progress to the knockout stage. The three best runners-up in each zone will also book their places in the last-16.
AFC Champions League 2023/24: Preview
Anticipation for the 2023/24 AFC Champions League has been ramped up a few notches by the developments in the Saudi Pro League this summer.
Al-Nassr’s acquisition of former Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo at the back end of last year set the tone for what has been a crazy few months in the Middle East.
Numerous other big players have since jumped on the Saudi bandwagon, including ex-Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and former Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar.
These and other expensive acquisitions have resulted in Saudi clubs featuring heavily towards the head of the outright betting market to win the tournament.
Australia’s solitary representative – Melbourne City – will no doubt be dreaming about progressing from their group and drawing one of the Saudi big-hitters.
Their odds on several leading betting websites suggest they have every chance of making it through to the last-16 after landing in what looks to be a favourable group.
City have been drawn in Group H alongside Buriram United (Thailand), Ventforet Kofu (Japan) and Zhejiang FC (China) and will fancy their chances of claiming top spot.
Football bettors may be willing to back the Melbourne outfit given how they performed the last time they featured in the group stage of this competition.
They went unbeaten during the opening phase in 2022, but were denied top place in their group by BG Pathum United on goal difference.
Despite not losing any of their six games (W3, D3), City failed to grab one of the three best runners-up places and were eliminated.
Zhejiang FC are likely to be their biggest threat in the group, given they are currently in the upper echelons of the Chinese Super League.
However, City’s hopes of progressing further than the last-16 will likely rest on avoiding the Saudi big-spenders if they make it to that stage of the competition.
Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad have both previously won the AFC Champions League and are among the most fancied teams with the bookmakers this year.
Reigning champions Urawa Red Diamonds are also expected to be competitive having lifted the trophy in 2007, 2017 and 2022.
The massive investment made by Saudi clubs this summer points towards one of their teams emerging victorious, and Al-Hilal look a good bet to get the job done.
They have plenty of firepower at their disposal, with Neymar, Alexsandr Mitrovic and Malcom forming an exciting attacking trio.
Ruben Neves, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Kalidou Koulibaly and Bono are other noteworthy additions to what has become a star-studded squad.
While one of their Saudi rivals could upset the odds, Al-Hilal should be tough to beat in what promises to be an intriguing tournament.