Evergrande carry China’s only hope in Asian Champions League

By Lu Wenao Source:Global Times Published: 2014-5-16 23:38:01

Sun Xiang (in red) of Guangzhou Evergrande is tackled by Mitch Nichols of Cerezo Osaka during the two sides' Asian Champions League game on Tuesday at Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP

Guangzhou Evergrande kept themselves on course to defend their Asian Champions League (ACL) title by beating Cerezo Osaka 5-2 on aggregate, but their two consecutive losses have raised fans' eyebrows.

After a 1-0 defeat to cross-city rivals Guangzhou R&F in the Chinese Super League (CSL) on May 9, Evergrande suffered their second consecutive home defeat against Cerezo on Tuesday, courtesy of an own goal by midfielder Liao Lisheng.

Last season Evergrande were runaway winners in both the domestic and continental leagues.

They claimed their third CSL title in a row with only one defeat to Tianjin Teda.

Then they won their maiden ACL trophy with only one defeat to Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds in the group stage, becoming the first Chinese club to win the continental title since the launch of the ACL in 2002.

The Guangzhou-based club has already been stunned twice in the CSL this season. On top of their derby defeat, they lost 1-3 to Changchun Yatai, the second-from-bottom in the 16-team top flight.

Their first away win in the ACL this season, a convincing 5-1 against Cerezo, came a week ago.

Evergrande have bagged just one point on the road in the group stage.

Defense slumps

Liu Jingjie, editor-in-chief of sodasoccer.com, believes Evergrande have been hit by fatigue.

"They had a long season last year, from preseason training in January to the FIFA Club World Cup in December, tiredness has beleaguered the team," Liu told the Global Times.

Liu pointed out the players' psychological change as the main reason for Evergrande's bump.

"From a deeper point of view, reaching a double last season has changed the players mentally," Liu said. "Their fighting spirit will have decreased. Their dominance in 2013 had them scouted out by their rivals which has resulted in a tough season for them so far."

The age of their veteran players is another of Liu's concerns about the defensive slump. Left back Sun Xiang turned 32 and captain Zheng Zhi, last season's Asian Footballer of the Year, is reaching 34.

What's more, Marcello Lippi's team may face a big blow to their defensive line this summer when key player Kim Young-gwon, included in South Korea's World Cup squad, is rumored to be seeking a transfer to a European club.

"Kim is a key player for Lippi's tactics," Liu said. "He can offer more options in Evergrande's formation. Whether it's 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1, Kim plays an important defensive role."

In addition, Evergrande's inconsistent attack piles pressure on their defense.

"When they cannot take control on the field as they did last year, the pressure goes to their defending," he said.

Alessandro Diamanti of Guangzhou Evergrande Photo: CFP

 Changing playmaker

Former playmaker Dario Conca is widely considered the key player for Evergrande's success last season, but the Argentine's departure - after the­  third place match against Atletico ­Mineiro of Brazil at the FIFA Club World Cup - handed Lippi a tactical headache.

New signing Alessandro Diamanti, Lippi's compatriot, has a different playing style to Conca, as the former Bologna captain is more an attacker than a playmaker.

"In some ways, changing a starting playmaker means you change the whole team's playing style," Liu said. "They need time to adapt themselves to the new one."

Evergrande will find it tough in the next ACL games, said Zhao Zhen, a senior reporter at Guangzhou-based Soccer News newspaper.

"Based on their current form, I think they will face a tough test in the last four [of the East Asia zone of ACL]," Zhao said.

This season the ACL divides into West and East Asia zones. Winners of each zone play in the finals.

The draw for the quarterfinals, which decides who are going to be Evergrande opponents, will be held on May 28.

Pohang Steelers of Japan, FC Seoul of South Korea and Western Sydney Wanderers of Australia are the other quarterfinalists in East Asia zone.

There is a three-month break in the season before the quarterfinal­ games kick off in late August.

"Their opponents' quality is growing, and those who value team play will be Evergrande's toughest challengers," Zhao said.

Changes in midfield will affect Evergrande's progress, Zhao believed.

"At the end of last year we saw Rene Junior joining and Conca leaving, which is not a small change to their midfield," he told the Global Times. "Teammates need time to rebuild their understanding with each other."

The ACL allows three players from outside the governing region. Evergrande have Diamanti and Brazilian strikers Muriqui and Elkeson. That means Rene can only play in the CSL if Evergrande are not going to make a change.

"I don't think Evergrande are likely to make a change. Their foreign attacking trio is indispensable. Anyone's missing is vital for their offense," Zhao said. "Diamanti has been a little bit inconsistent recently, and then Evergrande stuttered."

Diamanti, who represented Italy at last year's Confederations Cup in Brazil, was dropped by Italy coach Cesare Prandelli from his World Cup squad.

"Evergrande's domestic midfielders have the quality … Even Liao, has the potential to be a good player," Zhao said.

"They have talented young players. The question is whether Lippi is going to use them or not."

Newspaper headline: So far, not so good

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