|Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors players celebrate after winning the AFC Champions League Final match against Al Ain at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in the United Arab Emirates, Nov. 27, 2016. / Courtesy of K League|
By John Duerden
Here we go again. South Korean teams are preparing for the start of the AFC Champions League on Tuesday but this year's tournament is going to have something of a surreal atmosphere.
The spread of coronavirus from the Chinese city of Wuhan is dominating headlines around the world and is having a major effect on Asia's biggest club competition.
There is a Chinese team in each of the four East Asian groups (the tournament is divided into two geographic zones until the final). The initial solution was that this quartet would play the first three games of the group stage away and then return home in April to play the final three games.
Yet, when governments in Australia and Thailand announced that arrivals from mainland China would not be allowed entry, that solution was no longer a possibility. An emergency meeting in Kuala Lumpur decided that the first three games involving Chinese teams would be postponed and rescheduled for April and May, if all goes according to plan.
That means that FC Seoul, due to take on Beijing Guoan on Tuesday in Group A, will not play until the following week against Melbourne Victory. Suwon Bluewings will have to wait to face Guangzhou Evergrande and its first opponent will be Vissel Kobe on Feb.19.
There are two teams in action, however, hoping to put memories of a disappointing 2019 tournament to bed. No Korean team has reached the final since 2016, the longest absence in the tournament's history.
Jeonbuk Motors was that team and starts this time against Yokohama F. Marinos. This is a clash between the champion of South Korea and the champion of Japan. Yokohama has been resurgent under Australian coach Ange Postecoglou and plays an expansive and fluid brand of football.
Jeonbuk has seen Brazilian star Roberto Lopes sign with Shanghai SIPG but still has plenty of experience, talent and knowhow to win in Asia.
Ulsan Horangi is also in action, against FC Tokyo. The Japanese visitor led the J.League for most of the 2019 season and was on course for a first league title.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup from September to November put a spanner in the works as Tokyo's home stadium was needed, meaning that the football team played eight successive games on the road.
A final day defeat at Yokohama meant Tokyo had to settle for second. With only one appearance in Asia before, it remains to be seen how Tokyo handles the short trip to Ulsan. The Koreans won the continental crown in 2012 and are regular participants.
It remains to be seen just how the group stage pans out. All hope that Chinese teams will be able to host games on home soil in April and May. That would mean the coronavirus is under control and all will be ready for the round of 16 that starts in June.