What we learned as 2023-24 AFC Champions League got underway

Making his first start for Al Hilal on Monday, Neymar was unable to help his new club open their 2023-24 AFC Champions League campaign with a victory as they drew 1-1 with Navbahor. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

The 2023-24 AFC Champions League campaign got underway this week and, as has been the case on numerous occasions in the past, things did not go exactly to script.

For all the expectations surrounding the big-spending Saudi Arabian giants, not all of them managed to claim opening wins, while most of Southeast Asia's hopefuls failed to start well.

Meanwhile, the East Asia Zone of the competition could spring more surprises with a couple of pre-tournament favourites perhaps not prioritising continental football over their domestic commitments.

Here, we take a look at five things we learned from match day 1 of the new season of Asia's premier club competition.

Mixed results for Saudi Arabian heavyweights

With plenty of hype surrounding the Saudi Pro League trio of Al Ittihad, Al Nassr and Al Hilal, it was perhaps surprising that only two of them were able to make winning starts to their campaign.

Despite being without Karim Benzema, Al Ittihad comfortably saw off AGMK 3-0 while Al Nassr beat Persepolis 2-0 after initially struggling to break their opponents down in the first half.

It was Al Hilal -- with Neymar making his first start since his summer move -- that were surprisingly held to a 1-1 draw by Navbahor, who are competing among Asia's elite for the first time in the ACL era.

Saudi Arabia's fourth representatives Al Fayha were beaten 1-0 by Ahal, suggesting that SPL domination of the competition may be far from a foregone conclusion.

ASEAN outfits have work to do to emulate last season

Having done well to fly the flag for Southeast Asia last year by reaching the knockout round, both Johor Darul Ta'zim and BG Pathum United were handed losing starts at the hands of Kawasaki Frontale and Ulsan Hyundai respectively in Group I.

In what is promising to be a tightly-contested group, the upcoming meeting between the two sides on Oct. 3 is already looming as pivotal for both their prospects.

Lion City Sailors, Kaya FC-Iloilo and Hanoi FC were the other ASEAN hopefuls to suffer defeat.

There was however joy for Bangkok United, who edged the Sailors 2-1 in a captivating affair, while 2013 quarterfinalists Buriram United - back in the competition for the first time in five editions - showed they could mean business with an emphatic 4-1 rout of Zhejiang Professional.

Chinese teams are back at their strongest

For the past two campaign, the coronavirus pandemic effectively prevented the Chinese Super League's representatives from being competitive -- with travel restrictions forcing their hand in having to send reserve or youth team players to the tournament bubbles, while keeping their first team at home for domestic competition.

But with the situation now less dire and with the competition back to a home-and-away format, China could once again be well represented in the ACL.

Granted, the days of CSL teams splashing the cash on global superstars are long gone but it was at least refreshing to see them back fielding their strongest XIs.

While Zhejiang did fall to Buriram, Shandong Taishan eased to victory over Kaya while Wuhan Three Towns claimed a creditable 2-2 draw against reigning champions Urawa Red Diamonds.

Marinos might forego chance for continental glory

Despite their status as seven-time champions of Japan, Yokohama F. Marinos have not enjoyed much joy on the continental stage -- reaching only as far as the round of 16 in 2020 and 2022.

And based on their first outing, that might not be changing this season.

Despite being at home, Marinos opted to field a weakened XI comprising fully of locals, with just two of their five foreigners coming off the bench in a shock 4-2 loss to Incheon United.

With the J1 League title race evenly poised as Marinos currently trail leaders Vissel Kobe by a solitary, the focus could be on retaining their domestic crown -- which is something Japanese teams have regularly done in the past.

Could South Korea's contenders be teams to beat in the East?

So, if Marinos are not fully invested and the jury still out on Kawasaki and Urawa, while little is expected of second-tier Ventforet Kofu -- who qualified following last year's shock Emperor's Cup triumph -- could it be the South Korean teams that emerge as the favourites in the East Asia Zone?

Incheon certainly raised eyebrows with their rout of Marinos but the stronger challenge could come from Ulsan, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Pohang Steelers -- three teams who are no strangers to going all the way and have combined for seven titles.

Given their status as defending champions and current leaders of K League 1, Ulsan -- who won the ACL as recently as 2020 -- are looming as genuine contenders, while Pohang were beaten finalists just two seasons ago.

Jeonbuk have not enjoyed the best of seasons so far as they sit 6th in K League 1 but can never be ruled out, especially with their record of reaching the knockout round on ten occasions in the past 13 campaigns.