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AFC Champions League

FC Seoul 2-2 Guangzhou Evergrande: Honours even in ACL final

FC Seoul 2-2 Guangzhou Evergrande
ACL Final First Leg
Escudero 12′, Damjanović 83′; Elkeson 20′, Gao Lin 59′

It was a chilly night in Seoul, with temperatures dropping into single digits for the first time in months, but all those fortunate enough to be inside the World Cup stadium were rewarded with a fine game of football between Asia’s two outstanding sides.

Such was the nature of the game that both sides will feel that they could have come away with victory on the night. Even after FC Seoul had restored parity in the 83rd minute through Dejan Damjanovic, there was still time for both sides to create opportunities to seal a first leg advantage. Thanks to some excellent defending by Adilson for the hosts and a fine smothering save from Chinese ‘keeper Zeng Cheng, the tie will head to Guangzhou in the balance.

That said, Lippi’s Evergrande side were in confident mood when heading home on Sunday morning, aware that they had generally been the better side on the night and have two precious away goals to take back to the Tianhe Stadium. While defensively they must improve, they were a real threat every time they looked to attack—with a front three of Elkeson, Muriqui and Gao Lin all in predatory mood.

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As expected, they had started confidently, with Dario Conca at the centre of early spells of possession. However, after just 11 minutes, they would fall behind to a Sergio Escudero goal from a quick Damjanovic free-kick. Escudero, perhaps the game’s outstanding player, shrugged off a challenge from defender Feng Xiaoting and fired low into the bottom corner past Zeng.

The goal changed the dynamic of the game, with Seoul showing increased confidence on the ball and looking to compete in the possession stakes, albeit without creating many opportunities. Indeed, it was Evergrande who would have the best chance of the next few minutes with Gao Lin’s low shot from the right of the area well saved by the outstretched leg of Kim Yong-Dae in front of the home faithful.

Evergrande, though, would eventually bring Seoul’s period of control to an end when, just before the half-hour mark, Elkeson soared highest at a corner to head Conca’s cross into the corner of the net. It was a massive turning point in the game, with Elkeson’s fifth goal in five AFC Champions League ties putting Guangzhou firmly in the ascendency.

Conca took control once more and Evergrande looked much the more threatening side heading into the break. With the scores level and a crucial away goal in hand, the pressure appeared visibly lifted from the visitors’ shoulders—particularly deep-lying midfielders Zheng Zhi and Huang Bowen. The only major worry for the visitors at the interval would have been a yellow card picked up by centre-back Feng Xiaoting, whose run of disappointing performances since returning from injury continued—with Escudero causing him major concerns all game.

The game would continue in much the same pattern after the break, with Evergrande looking threatening while not creating any clearcut opportunities in front of goal. The breakthrough would come on the hour, though, as an Evergrande counterattack appeared to fizzle out, before Sun Xiang retrieved the ball on the left of the area and fired a low cross to the near post, which was turned home by striker Gao. In the lead and now in control of the tie as a whole, it was beginning to look like Evergrande may perform their usual second-half trick of racking up two or three goals in quick succession. It is much to FC Seoul’s credit, though, that they not only stemmed the tide but turned the game on its head entering into the final quarter of an hour.

After the goal, Lippi made changes in an attempt to preserve Evergrande’s lead. Rong Hao replaced Gao Lin on the right flank initially, before the introduction of Zhao Xuri saw the team switch to a more defensive 3-4-1-2 formation with Zhang Linpeng moving into a centre-back role. The changes failed to have the desired effect, though, and it was instead FC Seoul’s introduction of the effervescent Yun Il-Lok for defensively minded Go Yohan on the right flank that had a greater impact on the game. Yun linked well with the side’s two foreign forwards, with Evergrande’s defence creaking. The visitors’ Korean defender Kim Young-Gwon, though, was the exception, making several important blocks and tackles in the second half to aid his side. Zeng would also make a fine save to deny Damjanovic, after what had appeared a clear handball from the Montenegrin on his way into the area.

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The breakthrough would come with seven minutes remaining, with Evergrande’s defence once more worryingly inept. Escudero was afforded space on the left and, once the ball was played inside to Damjanovic, he found himself in acres of space inside the box. Zeng stood little chance of preventing a goal and the game was tied at 2-2.

The game was not done, however, with Evergrande pushing forward in numbers on the counterattack in an attempt to restore their lead. Twice in the space of minutes it had appeared that Brazilian Muriqui may have the chance to seal the game for his side, but he was denied shooting opportunities on both occasions by brilliant covering defending. A last-gasp sliding challenge from compatriot Adilson was particularly well executed, as the Evergrande man looked to get a shot away. Seoul, also, would have their moments in the final minutes, but could only find the side-netting with their best opportunity to seal a comeback win.

Marcello Lippi described the result as “fair” post-match, while his opposite number Choi Yong-Soo praised the performance of both sides, while expressing disappointment at conceding two away goals. In general, though, both sets of players were satisfied with the result, from a game in which both sides demonstrated why they have been quite so successful this season. Evergrande hold a slight advantage heading into the second leg and will be confident of success, but the tie is still very much in the balance.

FC Seoul: 1 Kim Young-Dae, 2 Choi Hyo-Jin, 4 Kim Joo-Young, 6 Kim Jin-Kyu, 8 Adilson; 16 Ha Dae-Sung, 22 Ko Myong-Jin, 21 Ko Yo-Han; 11 Molina, 9 Damjanović , 10 Escudero
Subs: 31 Yoo Sang-Hoon, 24 Yun Il-Lok (for 21 Ko Yo-Han 77′), 7 Kim Chi-Woo, 17 Choi Hyun-Tae, 18 Kim Hyun-Sung, 29 Lee Sang-Hyup, 33 Choi Tae-Uk

Guangzhou Evergrande: 19 Zeng Cheng; 32 Sun Xiang, 6 Feng Xiaoting, 28 Kim Young-Gwon, 5 Zhang Linpeng; 10 Zheng Zhi, 16 Huang Bowen, 15 Conca; 29 Gao Lin, 9 Elkeson, 11 Muriqui
Subs: 22 Li Shuai, 33 Rong Hao (for 29 Gao Lin 75′), 37 Zhao Xuri (for 32 Sun Xiang 87′), 4 Zhao Peng, 7 Feng Junyan, 8 Qin Sheng, 30 Yang Chaosheng

Based in Guangzhou, Christopher covers Chinese football for a range of media outlets worldwide and is Wild East Football's lead editor for news content.   His work can regularly be seen on ESPN FC, Bleacher Report and Hupu amongst other media outlets, while he has interviewed a number of leading figures in Chinese football.

Based in Guangzhou, Christopher covers Chinese football for a range of media outlets worldwide and is Wild East Football's lead editor for news content.   His work can regularly be seen on ESPN FC, Bleacher Report and Hupu amongst other media outlets, while he has interviewed a number of leading figures in Chinese football.

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