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Late Evergrande Blitz in Japan All But Ensures First Chinese ACL Final Appearance

Kashiwa Reysol 1-4 Guangzhou Evergrande

ACL Semi-final First Leg

Wagner 10′; Muriqui 58′, 90′, Conca 67′, 82′

The scoreline may flatter Guangzhou Evergrande but there was no doubting the superior quality of their side as they blasted four second-half goals past a tiring Kashiwa Reysol. The rout was started and finished by Muriqui, making it eleven goals in eleven games for the mercurial Brazilian and leaving him four goals clear as competition top scorer. In between, Conca found the net with a wonderful long-range screamer and an in-swinging corner that glanced off hapless defender Kim Chang-Soo on the line as it went in.

The 4-1 away win leaves Guangzhou with the simplest of tasks in the return fixture next Wednesday; if they can prevent the Japanese side from putting four clear goals past them, they will reach the final of Asia’s premier club competition for the first time in their history and become the first Chinese representatives at this stage since now-defunct Dalian Wanda in the Asian Club Championship in 1998. To say that the prospect of Reysol stopping them is unrealistic would be an understatement.

Yet half-way through this match most fans in red would have been more than happy to take a draw back to Tianhe, such had been the home side’s dominance. They went in front only ten minutes in, when a Wagner free-kick from some 35 metres out sailed over the defense and bounced past Zeng Cheng, who presumably had been put off by Cleo’s attempt to get on the end of it. Indeed the player, in Japan on a season-long loan from Evergrande, seemed to get the slightest of touches and was initially credited with the goal, but replays confirmed that his head had not made contact with the ball.

Guangzhou controlled possession for long stretches and Muriqui saw a close range effort rebound off the inside of the post midway through, but Kashiwa displayed by far the greater attacking threat throughout the half. Wagner was a constant menace; a point blank effort from Tanaka that Zeng Cheng was lucky to block with his feet and a chest-and-volley from Cleo that went just wide were both creations of his as he sent in cross after cross that caused pandemonium in the shaky looking Cantonese defense.

Huang Bowen had to be replaced by Gao Lin 36 minutes in after being clattered by goalkeeper Sugeno ten minutes earlier in going for a Conca free kick. Moments later Evergrande fans were made to sweat as Zhang Linpeng, a stand-out performer for the away side to this point, received lengthy treatment on the pitch and then had to be helped off, hobbling painfully with a medic under each arm. Thankfully he somehow managed to shake off the knock and play out the remainder of the match.

Feng Xiaoting, who had been a doubt for this game after a minor injury against Shanghai Shenhua nearly two weeks earlier, was replaced by Zhao Xuri six minutes into the second half with Zhang moving into the centre, and this strengthening of the spine of the team signaled an upturn in Evergrande’s fortune. The hosts had continued after the restart as they had finished the previous half, but Guangzhou have very much been a second half team this season and soon were putting heavy pressure on their opponents’ defense, with Gao’s introduction allowing Conca to push back into midfield where he could more effectively dictate the play.

Perhaps fatigue played a part in Kashiwa’s capitulation. They had played an away league match at the weekend while Guangzhou had had their’s postponed by the CFA to help them prepare for this game, and defensive errors from the home side became a more and more prominent feature as the half wore on. There was certainly a large degree of luck about the leveler just before the hour mark, as Muriqui pounced on a botched clearance by Kondo and fired straight above Sugeno, who couldn’t react in time to stop it.

There was nothing lucky about Conca’s strike nine minutes later to take the lead though; mere seconds after saving his side from going behind by nodding a goal-bound effort off the line, the diminutive Argentinian popped up in the opposition half to collect a blocked Elkeson shot and guide a precision rocket into the top left of the net, leaving the keeper no chance.

Cleo was unfortunate not to get a goal against his parent club with a twisting shot in the 71st minute that a wrong-footed Zeng did well to get to. It was a surprise when he was hauled off soon afterwards, with the Brazilian looking unhappy at being substituted while there was still a chance of getting something from the tie.

Evergrande sealed the win in the 82nd minute, Elkeson making some amends for an astonishing one-on-one miss earlier by putting Kim under pressure on the Kashiwa goal-line, leading to his failure to prevent Conca’s corner crossing over. And the tie was wrapped up in injury time, when Muriqui collected a knock-down from Gao and rounded Sugeno to pass into an empty net.

With Seoul FC beating Esteghlal 2-0 in their first leg match, they look like the most likely final opponents for Guangzhou, though the Iranians are capable of getting a result at home. With neither side able to boast riches like Conca or Muriqui however, Lippi must feel that the unique historical feat of managing clubs to Champions League titles on two different continents is within his grasp.

Guangzhou Evergrande: 19 Zeng Cheng; 32 Sun Xiang, 6 Feng Xiaoting, 5 Zhang Linpeng, 28 Kim Young-Gwon; 10 Zheng Zhi, 33 Rong Hao, 16 Huang Bowen; 15 Conca 9 Elkeson, 11 Muriqui
Subs: 22 Li Shuai, 29 Gao Lin (for 16 Huang Bowen 36′), 37 Zhao Xuri (for 6 Feng Xiaoting 51′), 4 Zhao Peng (for Sun Xiang 79′), 7 Feng Junyan, 8 Qin Sheng, 12 Zheng Long

Kashiwa Reysol: 21 Sugeno, 3 Kondo, 27 Kim Chang-Soo, 22 Hashimoto, 4 Suzuki, 15 Jorge Wágner, 28 Kurisawa, 20 Barada, 11 Cleo, 9 Kudi, 18 Tanaka
Subs: 16 Inada, 29 Taniguchi (for Barada 59′), 8 Sawa (for Cleo 78′), 2 Fujita, 5 Masushima, 14 Kano, 26 Ota

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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