Guangzhou Evergrande fell to a 4-2 defeat in the away-leg of their AFC Champions League quarter-final clash in Saudi Arabia, having twice taken the lead on the night.
Goals from Gao Lin and Huang Bowen had given the visitors a 2-1 lead by half-time, but Al-Ittihad came out reinvigorated and, aided by some lenient refereeing, were able to bully their opponents after the break.
A major concern for Italian coach Marcelo Lippi ahead of the second-leg, though, will be an injury suffered by Brazilian Muriqui in the first-half – potentially putting his involvement in the game at the Tianhe stadium in doubt.
Evergrande came out in determined fashion and were much the better team in the opening stages of the encounter, with any pre-match fears that Lippi’s side would play for a draw quickly dismissed as the red shirts pushed forward early on.
The best chance of the early minutes fell to Brazilian Muriqui, with Feng Xiaoting heading down Conca’s corner for the former Atlético Mineiro man to smash over the bar in a smart chance from 8 yards.
Evergrande were quickly given a warning of Al Ittihad’s attacking strength, though, as Diego Souza’s snapshot from the edge of the area tested Yang Jun.
Just before the half-hour mark, Evergrande were rewarded for their impressive start as Gao Lin gave the Super League leaders the lead. As Muriqui crossed from the left, Gao chested down the Brazilian’s cross and smashed home left-footed.
Within the space of a minute, though, Al Ittihad were level through Diego Souza. The supremely talented Brazilian flicked the ball up magnificently with his first touch, before smashing home on the volley with his second to level the score.
In many ways worse was to come almost immediately for Evergrande. Al Harbi slid in rashly on Muriqui from behind, missing the ball entirely, and despite an attempt to play on, the Brazilian eventually left the pitch on a stretcher – a huge blow to Evergrande’s hopes. The challenge was greeted with consternation by Chinese commentators who felt it worthy of at least a yellow card as, not for the first time, the referee allowed a poor tackle to go unpunished.
However, completing an action-packed ten minutes, the Chinese side took the lead once more. Zheng Zhi’s cross from the left was met magnificently by the head of Barrios, only to be denied by the crossbar. The rebound, though, would fall to Conca who laid the ball off for Muriqui’s replacement Huang Bowen to blast home with his first-touch.
At half-time, Lippi could only have asked for more of the same from his side, but was to be quickly disappointed. Immediately after the interval, Al Ittihad were level. With the ball falling to striker Hazazi in the box, centre-back Feng jumped in to win the ball but succeeded only in tripping the player. Saudi international Noor stepped up to dispatch the penalty in fine style, high to the right of the helpless Yang Jun.
Feng’s lack of recent match action was showing through, but for a centre-back of his experience it was a disappointing attempt to win the ball.
Evergrande were still a match for Al-Ittihad in midfield, with Barrios once more going close to scoring – this time heading wide from a Conca corner. However, in defence, the Guangzhou side were struggling to cope with the more direct style adopted by the hosts at the break.
On the hour mark, the unfortunate Feng was shown up once more. A cross was swung in from the right and Feng simply watched as he allowed lively striker Hazazi to rise and direct home a powerful header unmarked.
Having fallen behind, Evergrande pushed forward in search of an equalising goal, but with the game opened up there were chances at both ends. Gao and Conca went close for the Cantonese, with Hazazi threatening for the Saudi side.
With just minutes to go, Evergrande were punished in the same fashion. A cross from the right picked out Hazazi again, with Feng outjumped on this occasion, and the striker made no mistake with his header.
Despite a decent Evergrande performance, they found themselves bullied by their, at times, overly-physical West Asian opponents in the second-half. The Saudis changed to play a very simple game-plan, involving picking-out the impressive Hazazi, and the Chinese side never got to grips with the alterations.
The loss of attacking threat Muriqui was undoubtedly a big blow in such an important match, whilst the absence of centre-back Zhang Linpeng through injury exposed Feng following nearly a month without action. With two away-goals, the tie is far from over, but the late fourth goal added by Hazazi swings the balance firmly in the Saudis favour.
Post-match, Marcelo Lippi bemoaned the individual mistakes that cost his side goals, but also reserved criticism for the referee: “I think the referee favoured the home side today. I hope that when we return home, they will be as accommodating.”
The Italian, in one of only three questions he was prepared to answer, also defended the selection of Feng Xiaoting in defence: “Amongst the squad, Tang Dechao has been sidelined for 45 days, Feng Xiaoting for 25 days. I can only chose from amongst them to play centre-back. There is nothing to regret.”
Feng, too, faced reporters, adding: “The knee injury I have had recently has had a big impact on my body. The goals we conceded today were indeed our own fault. We started very well today, but in the end we allowed our opponents to come back through our own mistakes.”
Captain Zheng Zhi, though, was keen to add that individuals should not be blamed for the goals conceded, given the side’s recent run of absentees. However, he concluded: “I think this is not the worst of results – we have two away goals – we still have a chance, although it was disappointing to concede at the end.”
Al Ittihad’s Diego Souza was quick to express his relief at the win post-match and believes that the injury to Muriqui had a big impact on proceedings.
“It was a very difficult game, we conceded first and after coming back to equalise, we conceded again in the final minutes of the first-half,” Souza told ESPN Brazil.
“We performed brilliantly in the second-half and in the end we won the game. Nothing is settled yet, but we are very happy we were able to comeback against Evergrande. Unfortunately for them, Muriqui was injured in the first half. It had an affect on us because he is one of the biggest threats Evergrande possess.”
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