In the eyes of most rational observers, Guangzhou Evergrande’s narrow defeat in the Quarter-Final of the Asian Champions League can be seen as a step in the right direction for both the club and Chinese football. Ultimately, the defensive sloppiness shown in Saudi Arabia was to cost them, as a late goal from the visitors to the Tianhe Sports Stadium sent the hosts packing. Given Evergrande’s recent injury situation and lack of experience in the competition, though, this defeat is no embarrassment against an Al-Ittihad side who have a fine record in continental competition.
The attempt at continental glory, though, has damaged Evergrande’s season domestically. The truth is that, whilst the club boast an outstanding first-team and have more depth than most in China, the three-way hunt for glory has seen the side almost fall short in all three competitions. Yet, as it stands, with victories in their remaining four league games and the upcoming FA Cup final, they could still walk away with a glorious double.
They will have to do it in far from perfect circumstances, though, with coach Marcelo Lippi facing a one-game ban and defenders Zhang Linpeng and Tang Dechao banned for four and six-games respectively, for their conduct in last weekend’s unexpected defeat to Qingdao Jonoon – a hammer-blow that saw the club surrender the lead of the Chinese Super League to Jiangsu Sainty on goal difference.
All is not lost and, with dreams of the Asian Champions League dead and buried for another year, it should allow the club’s talented squad to re-focus their efforts on domestic matters. Lippi will no doubt hope for the hasty return of Brazilian Muriqui from injury suffered in Saudi Arabia, with the former Atlético Mineiro man perhaps the club’s most influential player. The process of getting back on track starts this Sunday, with the visit of Shandong Luneng to the Southern city, before the following week’s potential title decider away at Jiangsu – although both team’s must still face fourth-placed Beijing Guoan and Jiangsu finish the season away to third placed Guangzhou R&F. There is plenty of hope for Evergrande and with matches now spread a week apart, they will have no excuses for poor performance anymore. The pressure is on.
It has come to that time of season when the local newspapers are beginning to look ahead to the next campaign. There is a unanimous consensus that the defeat to Al-Ittihad will see a response and that Evergrande will look to raise the standard of their squad once more. In terms of foreign players, though, they will have little room for manoeuvre. The outstanding Kim Young-Gwon and returning Cho Won-Hee are expected to remain as the Asian federation players, whilst Lucas Barrios and Muriqui are expected to remain, with the Paraguayan cutting a much happier figure in recent weeks. Beyond that, Darío Conca is also thought to be very close to committing to the club, leaving want-away striker Cléo and defender Paulão as the potential casualties.
The local media, of course, suggests that the likes of Kaká are being targeted, but part of the success of Evergrande in the past couple of years has been their united team-spirit and this was slightly unsettled by the high-value arrival of Barrios earlier this summer. With one overseas player due to miss out on Asian Champions League duty due to quotas, it would make much more sense to attempt to sign a lower profile, but versatile addition to complement the undoubted quality of Muriqui, Conca and Barrios.
More realistic, perhaps, is the idea that the club will once more raid the Chinese Super League for domestic talent. The only way that the club can truly improve their prospects of competing across several competitions is to have a greater depth of quality amongst their domestic players. Ideally, this would be produced by a flourishing academy, but for the time-being that dream is someway off.
Currently, the club are heavily linked with the Liaoning Whowin duo of Yu Hanchao and Yang Xu – the former being a talented goalscoring midfielder and the latter, perhaps, the best striker China has to offer. It is no coincidence that they should play in the same position as the majority of Evergrande’s foreign players – this would then allow Lippi far greater room to rotate and then, in turn, perhaps to use his potential foreign imports to strengthen more defensive areas.
There is plenty for the Italian and the club’s real-estate company owners to think about in the coming weeks, as they plot their second attempt at the Asian crown. First, though, Lippi must ensure that this current season ends as a success. Now in the final, the FA Cup will be considered a must-win, but it is the league title that truly matters. For Evergrande to continue their development and rightfully claim to be the best side in China, they must prove themselves on the pitch. Most observers would agree that they are correct in their assertion, but it would look a lot more justifiable as double winners, rather than runners-up.
For the experienced manager, it is now that he will be expected to justify his enormous pay packet. Anything less than a domestic double and there could be questions asked of the World Cup winner, who came in with his side sitting comfortably atop of the league back in May and is yet to see his side produce a run of consistently impressive performances in the league. The next month threatens to be a heart-in-mouth affair for all those connected to the club.