UAE representatives Al Ain and Sharjah have discovered their opponents for the group stage of the Asian Champions League, with both avoiding showdowns with Saudi Arabia's heavyweight clubs.
Al Ain, the 2021/22 Adnoc Pro League champions, have been drawn in Group A and while they will face a team from Saudi Arabia, it will not be one of the three sides significantly strengthened by the summer transfer window.
Instead, the Garden City club will take on debutants Al Fayha, the surprise winners of the 2022 King's Cup, as well as Uzbekistan league champions Pakhtakor and Turkmenistan league and cup winners Ahal.
Sharjah, back-to-back President's Cup winners, were placed in Group B with 201/22 Qatar Stars League champions Al Sadd, 2022 Uzbekistan Cup winners FC Nasaf, and 2022 Jordanian Pro League champions Al Faisaly.
Saudi Pro League champions Al Ittihad – one of the clubs to benefit from the financial support of the Public Investment Fund and who will be led in the Champions League by Ballon d'Or holder Karim Benzema – were drawn in Group C.
Back-to-back Champions League winners in 2004 and 2005, Ittihad will face Sepahan SC of Iran, Iraq’s Air Force Club and Uzbekistan’s AGMK FC.
Group D is where record four-time winners Al Hilal have been placed as the Riyadh giants aim to go one better than last season's final defeat to Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds.
Hilal have been transformed this summer with the arrivals of Neymar, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ruben Neves, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Malcom, Kalidou Koulibably and Yassine Bounou, and will be firm favourites in a group also containing Iran’s Nassaji Mazandaran, Mumbai City of India and Navbahor of Uzbekistan.
Group E is the fifth and final group in the West section of the draw and contains Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr, who survived a scare against UAE champions Shabab Al Ahli in a play-off to get to this stage.
Having fought back from 2-1 down with seven minutes remaining to beat Shabab Al Ahli 4-2, Nassr will next face Iran’s Persepolis, Al Duhail of Qatar, Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol.
Over on the East side of the draw, Group F contains two-time winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea, Thailand’s Bangkok United, Lion City Sailors of Singapore and Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC. Group G, meanwhile, comprises of Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos, Shandong Taishan of China, Philippines’ Kaya FC-Iloilo and Korean side Incheon United, who are making their debut.
The four teams in Group H are Thailand’s Buriram United, Ventforet Kofu of Japan, Australia’s Melbourne City FC and Zhejiang FC of China, while two-time winners Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea, Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale, Johor Darul Ta’zim of Malaysia and Thailand’s BG Pathum United were placed in Group I.
Reigning champions Urawa, who needed to win a play-off to reach the group stage, were drawn in Group J with China’s Wuhan Three Towns, former champions Pohang Steelers of South Korea, and Vietnam’s Hanoi FC.
The group phase will kick off on September 18, with the winners of the 10 groups advancing to the knockout rounds alongside the three best runners-up in the western and eastern halves of the draw.
The knockout rounds will commence on February 12 with the final, played between the best club from their respective sides of the continent, to be held over two home-and-away legs on May 11 and 18.