When the AFC Champions League expanded the tournament pool to 40 clubs this season, many feared the move to introduce teams from developing football nations would dilute the quality of the competition.
The first matchday of the new continental season has proven the critics wrong.
The West Asia matches of the top-tier Asian club competition that kicked off in three centralised venues across Asia on Wednesday featured four debutant clubs from three new countries: India, Jordan and Tajikistan.
Far from muddying the quality, the newcomers showed they could match up against the tournament regulars and former champions. FC Goa put up a resilient display against 2019-20 Qatar Stars League runners-up Al Rayyan SC and managed to get a point. Uzbekistan's AGMK also held up former champions Al Hilal to a 2-2 draw, while a disciplined Al Wehdat defense frustrated Al Nassr FC in another stalemate.
Qualifying for the ACL as premiers of the 2019-20 Indian Super League season, Goa needed very little time to overcome their big-stage jitters. Right away they seemed comfortable competing with an Al Rayyan side coached by Laurent Blanc and lining up against former FC Porto winger Yacine Brahimi and veteran Iranian defender Shoja Khalilzadeh.
The Gaurs defended as a team and forced the goalless draw. But that was just one aspect of their impressive game as the Indians -- well drilled by young Spanish coach Juan Ferrando -- looked at ease building from the back and notched a considerable amount of possession in a game they were expected to lose.
India was not the only country to get their first ACL point on the first matchday as Jordan's Al Wehdat SC, yet to begin their new domestic season, also earned that draw against Al Nassr FC. The Saudi side reached the tournament semifinals last season and boasted 2020 ACL top scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah and former Watford attacker Nordin Amrabat.
The Saudi giants were held at their home ground by a disciplined Al Wehdat backline marshalled by Tareq Khatib and Yazan Al Arab. The Jordanians could have even nicked a goal, perhaps a winner, if it wasn't for Australian shot-stopper Brad Jones who tipped away a rare attempt from Al Wehdat's Ahmad Zreik in the second half.
A day later, the third nation that benefited from the ACL expansion also did not disappoint. Tajikistan's FC Istiklol came into the Champions League with a rich pedigree in the AFC Cup -- finishing runners-up in Asia's second-tier club competition in 2015 and 2017. But translating that success to the top tier was never going to be an easy task.
Yet, the Tajiks began their ACL 2021 campaign with a commendable draw against UAE's Shabab Al Ahli. With no winners in the other match in the group between 2019 winners Al Hilal and AGMK, Istiklol will be hoping to produce more surprise results in Riyadh.
The debutants will have their work cut out to sustain the same levels over the next couple of weeks after a historic opening matchday. But, even a difficult campaign among Asia's elite will provide valuable experience to players of all three clubs and for the tournament itself -- their addition seems to have sprinkled some much-needed magic over the routine.