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China Expects! ACL Final Second Leg Preview: Guangzhou Evergrande vs FC Seoul

After their thrilling 2-2 draw in Korea two weeks ago, Guangzhou Evergrande play host to FC Seoul at 20:00 this evening local time (12:00 GMT) in the decisive second leg of the Asian Champions League final. Both managers were cagey in Friday’s pre-match press conferences, but with the visitors needing to score and the home side strongest in attacking positions, all indicators are that the final will be anything but.

The home side are strong favourites, undefeated at Tianhe Stadium this season in both the domestic league and continental competition and with the advantage of two away goals from a first leg they looked marginally better in. However the way they wilted in the final quarter of that game has raised concerns that the lack of serious competition they face in the CSL has left them ill-prepared for the superior stamina and tenacity of such higher level opponents.

Dejan Damjanović, Seoul’s Montenegrin striker who equalised with seven minutes remaining and almost got the winner at the death, played on these fears in a statement last week. “The K-League is a really tough league and when you play every game you feel this,” he said. “You saw during the last 10-15 minutes that the Chinese players could not run, they couldn’t play, and they were lucky we missed a few chances. And believe me, it will be the same in the second leg. That is the K-League style because we can run.”

Manager Choi Yong-Soo and Colombian K-League veteran Mauricio Molina were much less direct at the pre-match press conference. The FC Seoul official tasked with translating to the assembled English-language media did not seem to have a very strong grasp of the language and details were often unclear, but the general message was a simple and repetitive enough one: they respected their opponents but were confident of victory.

At the Evergrande briefing held earlier in the day, manager Marcello Lippi and captain Zheng Zhi sang from much the same book, Lippi stating “We have a lot of respect for FC Seoul, but we have confidence that we can win the game and hope that luck will be on our side.” They both added that all injury concerns had passed and everyone in the squad was available for selection, a relief to those perturbed by Zhang Linpeng and Muriqui’s absences from the squad in the 5-0 league victory over Wuhan last weekend.

Lippi and Zheng Zhi

In the run-up to the final, national media and the club itself have taken to promoting the Cantonese side as ‘China Evergrande’ for the purposes of this tie. However when invited to draw a comparison to the 2004 Asian Cup final in which China’s national team’s loss to Japan in Beijing was followed by riots in the capital, Zheng Zhi responded that, “The 2004 game was the national side and this time the game is at club level. The players will play as we always do and we will all be calm and relaxed ahead of the game.”

Lippi claimed, “We are not feeling too much pressure, we are just enthusiastic to win the game”, but public expectations of continental glory by proxy for the motherland have reached fever-pitch in recent days, a situation not helped by the club cryptically embedding the scoreline 3-0 into one of its promotional posters for the fixture and details of its planned victory celebrations being leaked to the press.

The resulting enormous pressure to succeed for reasons of national ‘face’ and the fear of failure it could engender among players is arguably the greatest obstacle between Lippi and the unique feat of managing clubs to Champions’ League glory on two different continents. Having seen how much Seoul’s late attacking flurry troubled his team in Korea, the World Cup winner will surely have used the intervening time to refine his tactical masterplan accordingly, but preventing players from cracking mentally is less of an exact science.

Still, this Evergrande side has looked increasingly strong-minded and cohesive this season, and collective meltdowns like the one suffered against Qingdao a year ago seem to have effectively disappeared under Lippi’s guidance. In addition their troika of South American attacking players, who have scored 26 goals between them in the ACL this season (four more than the entire Seoul squad), should be less affected by the surrounding hullabaloo.  With the Cantonese side netting an average of three goals a game over the knock-out stages, Seoul outscoring them on their home turf seems an unlikely proposition.

So, China expects and the smart money is on Evergrande delivering. If they fail and a Korean side lifts the trophy for the fourth time in five years, it is anyone’s guess how the anticipative crowd will deal with the disappointment, though the local government is taking no chances with thousands of extra police deployed on the streets. Either way, it promises to be an exciting and intriguing night in Guangzhou.

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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