As AFC Champions League returns, will Saudi Arabia dominate for years to come?

With an influx of star names such as Sadio Mane and Cristiano Ronaldo, clubs from the Saudi Professional League look set to dominate the AFC Champions League this season and in years to come. Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images

Another edition of the AFC Champions League kicks off on Monday with the familiar scenario of an East Asia Zone club as the current title holders.

In fact, in the past 15 editions of Asian football's premier club competition, the eastern region of the continent has produced 13 champions across Japan, South Korea, China and Australia.

Only twice has the West Asia Zone managed to reign supreme -- Al Hilal two seasons ago and Al Sadd all the way back in 2011.

Yet, with how Saudi Arabian football has spent big to lure some global superstars to their part of the world, could the complexion of the ACL be about to change drastically? And perhaps for a sustained period of time?

Famous names are not exactly a new thing to Asian football but previously it was usually only the aging stars who were past their peak that were able to be lured.

Xavi, Didier Drogba, Robinho and Andres Iniesta just to name a few.

What Saudi Arabian football has managed in just the past nine months or so has never been done in Asia before.

Sure, Cristiano Ronaldo -- Al Nassr's prized possession -- may be 38 but arguably remains in the world-class category, especially when it comes to purely scoring goals and winning matches.

Few would dare claim that the powers of Sadio Mané, Ronaldo's new strike partner, are waning even coming off the back of a less-impressive campaign with Bayern Munich, while Karim Benzema -- Al Ittihad's new main man in attack -- is the current holder of the Ballon d'Or.

Then there is Al Hilal, who -- after reportedly missing out on Lionel Messi -- only went and secured the services of Neymar, who headlines a formidable array of foreign talents that also includes Kalidou Koulibaly, Rúben Neves, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Yassine Bounou.

On paper, these Saudi Pro League outfits now boast teams potentially strong enough to challenge even in Europe, so is it a truly a foregone conclusion that one of them will inevitably be crowned champions of Asia this season? And in the years to come?

The simple answer to all these questions is 'yes', because it is inconceivable that such ensemble casts will not sweep aside all before them -- at least until they come up against each other in the latter stages of the competition.

But football is never that simple, especially in a knockout competition.

Injuries, the luck of the draw, even the occasional below-average performance from Neymar or Mané and the likes of Al Hilal and Al Nassr could find themselves on the receiving end of a shock defeat.

Just last season, Al Hilal were heavily favoured to win the ACL even before their influx of illustrious names.

They had ex-Manchester United man Odion Ighalo leading the line along with a plethora of Saudi Arabia internationals that had just made an impact at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, where the Green Falcons had stunned eventual champions Argentina in their opening group-stage tie.

And they were up against an unfancied Urawa Red Diamonds outfit that only had one current international in their ranks and just two foreign players.

Somehow, Urawa managed to pull off a 2-1 aggregate win for their third continental title.

The onus will be on teams from the East like Urawa, Yokohama F. Marinos and Ulsan Hyundai, and even the Western hopefuls outside of Saudi Arabia like Qatari duo Al Sadd and Al Duhail to prove they are not out of the equation.

The fact does however remain that, unless and until proven otherwise, it is impossible to look past the likes of Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Nassr as the favourites to win this edition of the AFC Champions League, as well as those in the years to come.