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Struggling Western Sydney Wanderers open Asian Champions League title defense in tough group

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SEOUL, South Korea — It really has been tough at the top for the Western Sydney Wanderers in the months since becoming the first Australian club to win the Asian Champions League title.

Struggling and in last place in the domestic A-League with one win from 16 matches, the Wanderers travel to Japan's Kashima Antlers on Wednesday to kick off the defense of their continental club championship. No team has won back-to-back ACL titles in the last decade, and the Wanderers appear to be at long odds of ending that drought.

The Wanderers, who beat Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in a two-legged final last November, have landed in a tough group that includes 2013 champion Guangzhou Evergrande, 2014 semifinalist FC Seoul and Kashima, the most successful team in J. League history.

"Group H is clearly going to be a very strong group but at the Wanderers we relish challenges and welcome this one with open arms," the club's chief executive John Tsatsimas said.

The Wanderers defeated Guangzhou and Seoul on the way to the title last year, claiming the biggest prize in Asian club football in only its third year of existence.

"Our rematch against Guangzhou Evergrande will be one for our fans to savor and possibly already the highlight of the 2015 football calendar," Tsatsimas said. "This is what the Champions League is about and we look forward to the 2015 competition with anticipation."

Kashima has the chance to give the Japanese game a welcome boost. The Japanese national team has been a disappointment to fans in recent times, leaving the 2014 World Cup without a win and exiting the 2015 Asian Cup in January at the quarterfinal stage, its worst showing since 1996. Since then, Javier Aguirre has been fired as coach and no replacement has been appointed.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2014 file photo, Australia's Western Sydney Wanderers players celebrate after winning the Asian Champions League Final second leg soccer match with a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal at King Fahd stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Struggling and in last place in the domestic A-League with one win from 16 matches, the Wanderers travel to Japan's Kashima Antlers on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015 to kick off the defense of their continental club championship. No team has won back-to-back ACL titles in the last decade, and the Wanderers appear to be at long odds of ending that drought.  (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2014 file photo, Australia's Western Sydney Wanderers players celebrate after winning the Asian Champions League Final second leg soccer match with a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal at King Fahd stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Struggling and in last place in the domestic A-League with one win from 16 matches, the Wanderers travel to Japan's Kashima Antlers on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015 to kick off the defense of their continental club championship. No team has won back-to-back ACL titles in the last decade, and the Wanderers appear to be at long odds of ending that drought. (AP Photo/File)

The Asian Champions League is also making it more difficult for Japan to find a new head coach. Michael Laudrup, coach of Qatari club Lekhwiya, told Japanese media recently that he is focusing on the continental club competition and is not interested in the vacant Japan job.

"We will also start the group stage of the Champions League so there will be a lot of games in the near future," Laudrup said."I am aware of the interest from Japan but ... we have a lot of games coming up and they have, absolutely, first priority at the moment."

Japanese clubs have failed to reach the Asian Champions League final since 2008. Gamba Osaka was champion then and returns to the tournament along with 2007 winner Urawa Reds and Kashiwa Reysol.

The strongest challenge could come from China. Guangzhou Evergrande may have lost Marcello Lippi as head coach but the Italian has been replaced by his 2006 World Cup winning captain. Fabio Cannavaro is bidding to add a fifth successive domestic title to Guangzhou's trophy cabinet while lifting the big-spending club, boosted by the arrival of highly-rated Brazilian Ricardo Goulart signed in January for around $20 million, to a second continental title.

"Guangzhou is always looking to be successful in Asia," Cannavaro said. "We are ambitious but we also know that we are in a very tough group. Our first priority is to focus on getting to the knockout stage."

Other Chinese clubs have been spending, too. Guangzhou R&F, led by former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson, beat Australia's Central Coast Mariners in the final playoff for ACL qualification earlier this month. Beijing Guoan takes on Brisbane Roar in the opening round.

South Korea has the best record in the Asian Champions League with 2014 marking the first final not to feature any K-League teams since 2008. Three of its four representatives — Suwon Bluewings, Seongnam FC and Jeonbuk Motors — have been Asian champions in the past while Seoul FC reached the final in 2013.

Over on the western half of the draw, Al Ain will be closely watched. Not only does the United Arab Emirates team possess perhaps the most dangerous striker in Asian football in Asamoah Gyan of Ghana but it is also home to Omar Abdulrahman, one of the region's biggest stars. The 23-year-old playmaker has been linked in the past with a transfer to a number of big European clubs, and was one of the best performers at the 2015 Asian Cup, helping UAE to the semifinals.

Al Hilal of Saudi Arabi is determined to bounce back from its unexpected defeat in November's final to Western Sydney to win a third continental crown and has been grouped with 2011 winner Al Sadd of Qatar. Doha-based Al Sadd, along with Lekhwiya, makes up the Qatari challenge. Losing all three games at the Asian Cup was a major disappointment for Qatari fans and the two clubs will be aiming to restore reputations.

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