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AFC Champions League

Hengda Heads Held High; Unlucky Evergrande crash out of ACL

A good performance and a 2-1 win in front of a vibrant home crowd was not enough to gain Guangzhou Evergrande a place in the semi-finals of the Asian Champion’s League.

The mood was optimistic at Tianhe stadium when the Cantonese side went in at half-time two-nil up; at that stage they were going through, courtesy of the goals scored in the previous 4-2 away loss. However, they couldn’t capitalise on their chances in the second half, and in the end Al-Ittihad took the goal they always looked capable of getting and left China without any representatives in the ACL.

Tianhe was not as full as I’ve seen it, but the atmosphere was certainly as pulsing, with the crowd in a very boisterous mood. The away section had a very respectable number of colourful and loud fans, and they mostly exchanged friendly banter with the locals. The Saudi team sported kits with yellow numbers on a grey background, which made the numbers practically invisible to me, so I pretty much had no idea which Saudi players were doing what throughout.

Guangzhou went out on the attack early on, Mabrouk Zayed doing well to tip over a Conca shot in the sixth minute. Then a defensive error five minutes later by Zhang Linpeng allowed Al-Ittihad players to get past him and put the ball in the net, but luckily for Zhang the goal was disallowed for offside.

Things slowed down a little after that, Al-Ittihad happy to wait to strike on the counter, until Barrios smacked a great shot off the crossbar in the 17th minute; the ball had fallen fortunately for him, but he had done very well to make the space for the effort while surrounded by three defenders. He repeated the same trick moments later, from a pass from Gao Lin, only this time he hit the ball low and inside the left post to put the hosts one up.

Al-Ittihad almost immediately equalised, with a shot just wide of the right post, and had another good break or two over the next quarter of an hour, but Guangzhou scored the next goal to put themselves ahead in the tie on the away goals rule. Osama Al Harbi slid in in the vicinity of Gao Lin in the box, and the Chinese international performed one of his agonised leaps. Conca scored the resulting dubious penalty, evening the score on that front over the tie as a whole.

The 3-5-2 formation Lippi employed seemed to suit the team better than the usual 4-3-3, with Barrios and Gao Lin working very well together up front, and Rong Hao and Feng Junyang impressive on the wings. The latter missed a glorious chance to put Guangzhou 3-0 up three minutes after the restart when after some great dribbling down the right sideline, Gao Lin crossed a swinging ball to him in the box, but he headed it wide when it looked easier to get it on target.

Coming up to the hour mark, Evergrande really started tightening the screws, launching wave after wave of attack, mindful that a two goal advantage wasn’t good enough against a team that were as dangerous on the break Al-Ittihad had shown themselves to be in Jeddah a fortnight ago. Guangzhou’s attacking front trio had several good chances, including a cracking Conca shot from distance that hit the post in the 62nd minute, but were unable to convert any of them, and doubt began to creep in.

With about a quarter of an hour to go, Lippi replaced Feng Junyan with Li Jianhua, a slightly defensively minded substitution, and then shortly afterwards Barrios with Zhao Xuri. Perhaps Barrios was too tired to continue, and the Chinese international defensive midfielder had impressed against Qingdao on Friday, even coming close to scoring a couple of times, but this was effectively gambling on keeping the clean sheet. Zhao unfortunately seemed to have left his first touch on the bench somewhere and looked uncomfortable on the ball here.

The gamble failed as two minutes after withdrawing Barrios, a pair of substitutes combined to pull one back for the Jeddah team. A long ball downfield found the head of Naif Hazazi, who nodded it on to Fahd Al Muwallad charging past Kim on the right of the box; Kim caught up and got his leg in for the shot, but only succeeded in deflecting it past Li Shuai into the Guangzhou goal. There wasn’t much the keeper could have done about it, and he was otherwise impressive.

Thereafter Evergrande rallied, with Jiang Ning sent on in Rong Hao’s place to bolster the attacking options. They had a few more good chances, particularly a surging run and shot from Zhang Linpeng right at the end of normal time, and a couple of feeble penalty shouts that were turned down by the referee to the plastic-drinks-container-chucking rage of the local support.

However the Saudi defense, no longer having to cope with the physical threat Barrios had been providing, were generally able to soak up the increasingly desperate crosses into their box, and Al-Ittihad finished the game the losers on the night, but the victors of the tie. They will now go forward to a semi-final against fellow Saudi team Al-Ahli, who beat Iranians Sepahan 4-1 to seal their spot.

Guangzhou Evergrande’s players were serenaded by a large section of the home support after the match, aware that their team had given it all, but that their luck just hadn’t been in on the night. Qualification for next year’s ACL is all but guaranteed; now the club must put last night’s disappointment behind them on focus on the upcoming final six matches of the season and winning the two trophies still within their grasp.

Guangzhou Evergrande: 22 Li Shuai, 6 Feng Xiaoting, 28 Young-Gwon Kim, 5 Zhang Linpeng, 4 Rong Hao (21 Jiang Ning 81′), 7 Feng Junyang (14 Li Jianhua 72′), 8 Qin Sheng, 10 Zheng Zhi, 15 D. Conca, 18 L. Barrios (37 Zhao Xuri 76′), 29 Gao Lin

Al-Ittihad: 1 Mabrouk Zayed, 21 Hamad Al Montashari, 50 Ibrahim Hazzazi, 4 Redha Tukar (29 Ahmad Asiri 41′), 5 Osama Al Harbi, 18 Mohammed Noor (Fahd Al Muwallad 69′), 14 Saud Khariri, 7 M. M’bami, 13 Anas Sharbini, 23 Mohamed Abosaban (Naif Hazazi 46′), 10 Diego Souza

Irish Guangzhou Evergrande fan, following them since I fortuitously found myself living next to Tianhe Stadium in 2011, reporting on them for Wild East Football since 2012.

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