Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande were handed a tough AFC Champions League draw against two former winners Thursday, complicating their bid to end China's long Asian trophy drought.
The Chinese champions, marshalled by their World Cup-winning Italian coach, landed in a difficult Group F with South Korea's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan, winners in 2006 and 2007 respectively.
Newly crowned J-League winners Sanfrecce Hiroshima were pitted against Beijing Guoan, Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor and South Korean side Pohang Steelers, the 2009 champions, in Group G.
And Australia's Central Coast Mariners will face China's Guizhou Renhe, Suwon Bluewings of South Korea and the eventual winners of Japan's Emperor's Cup, in Group H.
A-League champions Brisbane Roar, forced to go through qualifying after Australia were reduced to just one automatic spot, will play Thailand's Buriram United on February 9 for a place in Group E.
South Korea's K-League winners FC Seoul, Vegalta Sendai of Japan and Jiangsu Sainty, runners-up to Lippi's Guangzhou in the Chinese Super League, await the play-off winners.
The harsh draw is a setback for ambitious Guangzhou, who reached the quarter-finals on debut this year and are attempting to become China's first Asian champions since Liaoning won the former Asian Club Championship in 1990.
"Lippi was very disappointed that we didn't make it as far as the semi-finals, but next year we will prepare according to the AFC Champions League schedule and we will give the competition more priority," Guangzhou's Zheng Zhi said before the draw.
"We accomplished the goals we established at the beginning of this year because the main focus for us was the AFC Champions League since it was the first year that Guangzhou Evergrande had played in the competition."
In the west Asian bracket, inaugural winners Al Ain of UAE were drawn against Iranian Cup-winners Esteghlal, along with Al Rayyan of Qatar and Saudi side Al Hilal in Group D.
This year's runners-up, Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia, drew Iranian champions Foolad Sepahan and Qatar's Emir Cup winners Al Gharafa in Group C.
Uzbekistan's Pakhtakor, ever-present in all 10 previous editions of the AFC Champions League, will face Qatari league-winners Lekhwiya and Saudi Arabia's Al Ettifaq in Group B.
Group A is headed by Saudi champions Al Shabab, who are pitted against UAE cup-winners Al Jazira, El Jaish of Qatar and newcomers Tractor Sazi Tabriz of Iran.
Play-offs are on February 9 and the home-and-away group stage begins on February 26, before a knock-out round of 16 in May. The competition breaks until late August and wraps up with a two-legged final completed in November.