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By ESPN Staff

Gamba begin title defence against Shandong

Reigning champions Gamba Osaka will kick off the defence of their Asian Champions League title with a home fixture against Chinese champions Shandong Luneng.

Gamba, who only just scraped into the 2009 edition of the competition with victory in Japan's Emperor's Cup on New Year's Day, have been drawn in Group F alongside Shandong, FC Seoul from South Korea and Indonesia's Sriwijaya.

Akira Nishino's side are one of four Japanese clubs to feature in the tournament with the three remaining representatives spread throughout the draw.

J.League champions Kashima Antlers, who reached the quarter-finals of last year's competition, will face Shanghai Shenhua, Korean champions Suwon Bluewings and the winners of the east Asian play-off in Group G.

Thailand's Provincial Electricity Authority, Singapore Armed Forces and PSMA Medan from Indonesia will battle between them for the remaining slot in Group G.

Group H features Kawasaki Frontale, quarter-finalists in 2007, alongside Australia's Central Coast Mariners, Tianjin Teda of China and two-time champions Pohang Steelers from Korea.

Former Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai, winners of the title in 2006, have been drawn alongside Dragan Stojkovic's Nagoya Grampus Eight in Group E, which also features China's Beijing Guoan and Newcastle Jets of Australia.

The west of the continent has thrown up a number of intriguing groups, with two-time winners Al Ittihad from Saudi Arabia due to meet Al Jazira of the United Arab Emirates, Iran's Esteghlal and Umm Salal of Qatar in Group C.

"I think it's going to be difficult to qualify from this group," said Al Ittihad coach's Argentinian coach Gabriel Calderon.

"Every group is difficult. In football nothing is easy but it is possible to qualify, but it will be difficult.

"Every time we play to win and to be champion, but every other club thinks the same.

"But the people in Ittihad think we should be champions. That's normal. But I like this, it's normal at a big club. Barcelona, Real Madrid every time wants to win but only one team can win and hopefully it will be Ittihad."

Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal have been drawn in Group A alongside two-time semi-finalists Pakhtakor from Uzbekistan as well as Al Ahli from the United Arab Emirates and Iran's Saba Battery.

"I have to admit, I don't know a lot about the other teams," said Al Ahli coach Ivan Hasek. "I know Al Hilal are a very strong team but after that it's not easy to talk about the other teams.

"But if you qualify from the group, it's an easy group. If you don't qualify it's not an easy group.

"We play each team twice and we'll do our best to qualify. We have the team to do it and we will prepare to do our best.

"For us it's a great motivation to play in the Champions League and we will try to go through to the next round."

Last year's semi-finalists Bunyodkor - formerly known as Kuruvchi - head up a Group D which also includes Al Shabab Al Arabi from the UAE, Iranian club Sepahan and Al Ittifaq from Saudi Arabia.

Group B features Iranian powerhouse Pirouzi, Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia, Qatar's Al Gharafa plus the winners of the play-off between Dempo from India and Sharjah from the UAE.

The group phase of the competition kicks off on March 10 with the top two teams from each pool progressing to the second round.

Draw for the Group Stages of the 2009 Asian Champions League:

Group A: Al Hilal (Ksa), Bunyodkor (Uzb), Al Ahli (UAE), Saba Battery (Irn) Group B: Persepolis (Irn), Al Shabab (Ksa), Al Gharafa (Qat), Qualifier Group C: Al Jazira (UAE), Esteghal (Irn), Al Ittihad (Ksa), Umm Salal (Qat) Group D: Pakhtakor (Uzb), Al Shabab (UAE), Sepahan (Irn), Al Ettifaq (Ksa) Group E: Ulsan Hyundai (Kor), Newcastle Jets (Aus), Beijing Guoan (Chn), Nagoya Grampus (Jpn) Group F: Gamba Osaka (Jpn), FC Seoul (Kor), Sriwijaya (Ina), Shandong Luneng (Chn) Group G: Shanghai Shenhua (Chn), Kashima Antlers (Jpn), Suwon Bluewings (Kor), Qualifier Group H: Central Coast Mariners (Aus), Tianjin Teda (Chn), Kawasaki Frontale (Jpn), Pohang Steelers (Kor)


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