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AFC Champions League East Zone resumes with knockout rounds as upstarts look to upset traditional powerhouses

Having reached the AFC Champions League knockout round for the first time ever, can Malaysia Super League champions Johor Darul Ta'zim go further in 2022-23? Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

Over three months since the group stage concluded, play resumed in the 2022-23 AFC Champions League on Thursday with the East Zone knockout rounds kicking off.

Due to logistical hindrances stemming from the continuing pandemic, the Round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals will all be single-leg ties held in a centralised venue over a whirlwind period of eight days, as opposed to the usual home-and-away format.

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Saitama, Japan will be the battleground over the next week or so, and the East Zone's original eight aspirants looking to keep alive their hopes of becoming champions of Asia has already been reduced to six following Thursday's ties.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were the first to book their place in the quarters after claiming a dramatic 2-1 extra-time win over South Korean compatriots Daegu.

Then, in what proved to be a second thriller of the evening, Vissel Kobe produced a real upset in an all-J1 League tie, beating Yokohama F. Marinos 3-2 to keep alive their hopes of salvaging what has been a trying season.

With two mouthwatering duels down but two still to be played, we take a look at Friday's Round of 16 ties -- which promise to be history-making.

BG PATHUM UNITED vs. KITCHEE

History beckons for both Thailand's BG Pathum United and Kitchee of Hong Kong on Friday.

Having reached the same stage in their tournament debut last year, BG Pathum will venture further than they ever have before as long as they negotiate their way past this round.

Meanwhile, Kitchee have already created history by qualifying for the last-16 for the first time ever earlier this year, and anything more will be a bonus.

Netither side have had recent competitive match practice, with BG Pathum having their opening match of the new Thai League 1 campaign postponed in order to accommodate their continental commitments.

Kitchee however have warmed up for their return to action with a quintet of friendlies in a tour of South Korea, which included games against top-flight opposition FC Seoul and Incheon United.

The five-time Hong Kong Premier League champions can also call upon the ACL's all-time top scorer Dejan Damjanovic, in what could possibly be a swansong in Asian football's premier club competition for the evergreen 41-year-old.

Still, BG Pathum do look to have the more well-rounded squad and might just have enough to get over the line.

Prediction: Kitchee will always give it their all but BG Pathum should be able to march on to a first ACL quarterfinal appearance.

JOHOR DARUL TA'ZIM vs. URAWA RED DIAMONDS

The genuine David vs. Goliath clash in the ACL East Zone Round of 16.

In dramatic fashion, Johor Darul Ta'zim claimed a historic maiden appearance in the knockout stage of the ACL back in April -- at the expense of powerhouses Ulsan Hyundai and Kawasaki Frontale, no less.

And they will have to keep up their giant-killing ways if they are to see off two-time Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds.

As is usually the case given their domestic dominance, JDT will head into this tie in good form having won 13 of their past 15 games, with their most recent defeat coming in the ACL group stage.

Yet, how they fare in their return to continental action is also a bit of an unknown proposition given the recent departure due to personal reasons of coach Benjamin Mora, whose replacement Hector Bidoglio has only been in charge for four matches.

They will definitely enter Friday's contest as underdogs given Urawa's history in the competition, and the fact that they have been having a decent domestic campaign even if they are not close to challenging for the title in the J1 League.

With 20 goals in the group stage, Urawa also showed an ability to turn on the style especially in games where they were the favourites, but the Reds do lack a genuine game changers -- something JDT boast in both Bergson da Silva and Fernando Forestieri.

Prediction: Urawa are undoubtedly the favourites but there is usually a major upset waiting to happen in the knockout stages. JDT might just provide it.