By Michael Church
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Two-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande have been handed a potentially bumpy ride to the knockout stages of the 2018 Asian Champions League after the draw for the group phase of next year's competition was made on Wednesday.
Evergrande, title winners in 2013 and 2015, will take on South Korea's Jeju United, Buriram United of Thailand and an as yet undetermined Japanese representative in group G when the competition kicks off in February.
Guangzhou's last triumph came under Luiz Felipe Scolari but they exited the competition this year at the quarter-final stage at the hands of Chinese Super League rivals Shanghai SIPG.
However, Scolari still steered Guangzhou to a club-record seventh straight domestic league title before resigning and was replaced by Fabio Cannavaro.
The former Italy defender's first game back at the helm of the club he led at the start of 2015 will be against Thai champions Buriram at Tianhe Stadium on Feb. 14.
Shanghai Shenhua, China's other automatic qualifier for the group phase, have been drawn in group H to take on Australian champions Sydney FC as well as former Japanese champions Kashima Antlers and either Suwon Bluewings from South Korea, Vietnam's Thanh Hoa or Eastern from Hong Kong.
With the champions not gaining automatic qualification, Urawa Red Diamonds, who won the 2017 title in November with a 2-1 aggregate win over Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, will not defend their crown after failing to claim a place through Japan's domestic competitions.
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who won the title in 2016 but were banned from this year's competition due to their involvement in a match-fixing scandal, return after winning the Korean league title. Choi Kang-hee's team will meet Hong Kong's Kitchee with two playoff winners in group E.
Newly-crowned Japanese champions Kawasaki Frontale have been drawn to face Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea, Australia's Melbourne Victory and the winner of a playoff that could see China's Shanghai SIPG join the fray.
In the west of the continent, Al Hilal, who were defeated by Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds last month, were drawn to face Iran's Esteghlal, Al Rayyan of Qatar and either Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain's Malkiya in group D.
Iran's Persepolis take on Al Sadd of Qatar, UAE's Al Wasl and either Nasaf Qarshi from Uzbekistan or Aizwal from India in group C while group A will feature Al Jazira from UAE, Saudi Arabia's Al Ahli, Tractorsazi Tabriz of Iran and either Qatar's Al Gharafa or Pakhtanor from Uzbekistan.
(Reporting by Michael Church in Kuala Lumpur, Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)