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Oscar in limelight for Champions League kick-off

Hong Kong (AFP) – Megabucks import Oscar will hope to make his mark for Shanghai SIPG as the AFC Champions League returns this week, featuring a trailblazing female coach but missing last year’s winners, who were banned for match-fixing.

Brazilian playmaker Oscar, SIPG’s 60-million-euro buy from Chelsea, will be under the spotlight in week one as SIPG look to emulate Guangzhou Evergrande by bringing the Asian club trophy back to China.

Chan Yuen-ting will make history as the first female coach to take part in a continental tournament when she leads Hong Kong’s Eastern against Evergrande in Group G.

But there will be no title defence from South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who were kicked out over a K-League match-fixing scandal which played out during their run to victory last year.

SIPG spent lavishly before China launched a crackdown on transfer fees and wages last month. They have also hired ex-Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur coach Andre Villas-Boas, who won the Europa League with Porto in 2011.

Oscar, reportedly the world’s second best paid player behind Shanghai Shenhua’s Carlos Tevez, has already shown his worth by scoring the opener in SIPG’s 3-0 play-off win over Thailand’s Sukhothai FC to reach the group stage.

Defender Ricardo Carvalho, another former Chelsea man, is also a new arrival to an SIPG squad already boasting Brazil forward Hulk and his free-scoring compatriot, Elkeson.

SIPG’s first assignment is away against FC Seoul, last year’s semi-finalists and the 2013 runners-up, as they seek to improve on last year’s run to the last eight on debut.

Winning the Asian title would help vindicate Oscar’s move to China and would also make good on Villas-Boas’s repeated promises to bring silverware to his new club.

– ‘World will be watching’ –

Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Chinese title-holders Evergrande, the 2013 and 2015 Asian champions, will be out to erase memories of last year’s embarrassing title defence when they crashed out in the group stage.

Fellow Chinese heavyweights Jiangsu Suning also failed to reach last year’s knock-out rounds but they will hope Brazilian big signings Ramires and Alex Teixeira can take them to greater heights.

Jiangsu open their campaign away to South Korea’s Jeju United, with Australian champions Adelaide United and Japan’s Gamba Osaka also awaiting in Group H.

Western Sydney Wanderers, the shock winners in 2014, host Japanese outfit Urawa Red Diamonds with SIPG and FC Seoul the other teams competing in a tough Group F. 

But much attention will focus on Evergrande’s Tianhe stadium, where Chan, the first female coach to win a top-tier men’s title, grabs another slice of history on Wednesday.

“This is a moment of historic significance,” said AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa. “It is a ground-breaking moment for football in Asia, for the women’s game and for the global game. 

“The world will be watching.”

Chan said it would be “quite amazing” to launch Eastern’s campaign against Evergrande’s Scolari, a World Cup-winner with Brazil who has also coached Portugal and Chelsea.

“I never imagined or expected this could happen but now we’re going to play against him so I feel excited and I’m looking forward to meeting him,” she told the AFC website.

The tournament will also feature Monday games for the first time in the Western region, which again remains separated from the Eastern competition until the final.

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