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ACL Final Second Leg, Guangzhou Evergrande vs FC Seoul: View From the Press Box

Guangzhou Evergrande 1-1 (agg. 3-3) FC Seoul

ACL Final Second Leg

Elkeson 58′; Damjanović 62′

Thanks to famed Korea-based football writer John Duerden, Wild East Football’s Guangzhou Evergrande correspondent GZBiffo managed to acquire a media pass for the second leg of the Asian Champions League final. Here is his perspective on the game from his vantage point of the press box at Tianhe stadium and on the celebrations that ensued when the home team became only the second Chinese football side ever to win a continental trophy.

IMG_20131109_165138Hours before the 8pm kick-off, the streets around Tianhe stadium were already thronged with red shirts waiting for the grounds to open to ticket holders. The atmosphere was festive, but there didn’t seem to be a whole lot for the early birds to do. Some passed the time watching the imposing security presence behind the barriers build up, while others negotiated with (or tried to negotiate their way around) the many hawkers jamming up the areas surrounding the entrances and nearby metro station exits. My boredom threshold obviously too low, I took my leave of the scene and met up with some fellow fans for food in a nearby bar.

IMG_20131109_165051By the time I reached my seat in the press box more than 90 minutes before kick-off, the stadium was already well over half full. While tickets had been extremely difficult to come by for regular local supporters, fan groups had managed to reserve pretty much the whole south end of the stadium for their members, and these seats were filling up the quickest, their songs reverberating thrillingly around the arena long before there was any movement on the pitch below.

Perhaps partly as a result of all the nationalistic pre-match ‘China Evergrande’ hype, there was a surprising level of hostility towards the other finalists’ homeland on display in the stands. While we waited for the players to appear, a short video showing each winner of the ACL thus far in sequence was shown on the big screen, with every Korean club that appeared receiving intense jeering, while those from regular arch-enemy Japan passed without audible comment. The surprisingly packed (given the prices charged) away section was not cowed and contributed as best they could to the atmosphere throughout, but there was little impact they could make on the wall of noise that emanated from the sell-out home crowd.

The fan section at Tianhe Stadium 90 minutes before kick-off

The fan section at Tianhe Stadium 90 minutes before kick-off

The team sheet for the away side was as expected, with veteran right back Cha Du-Ri returning to the side after suspension, replacing Choi Hyo-Jin. The Guangzhou line-up contained a surprise however; the 2-2 draw in Korea and the away goals rule meant that Seoul needed to score to have a chance of claiming the title, so Lippi pushed Conca into the front line between Elkeson and Muriqui (though in practice he was popping up all over the pitch as usual) and had hefty defensive midfielder Zhao Xuri shore up the centre at the expense of fleet-footed forward Gao Lin.

The visitors took on a more offensive shape than their usual 4-2-3-1, Escudero joining Montenegrin striker Damjanović up front, but with Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi often dropping back as an auxiliary central defender when Seoul did get the ball, they were rarely able to get anywhere near the opposition box. Guangzhou quickly came to dominate possession, sometimes passing it around and making the Seoul players chase, and sometimes attacking at speed up the flanks via the full-backs.

Zhang Linpeng on the right was especially causing problems, setting up Conca for the first of two shots in the space of five minutes that skimmed the base of the right post. Choi Yong-Soo’s decision to get Molina at left midfield to swap places with the speedier Escudero midway through the half mitigated the problem somewhat, along with a harsh yellow card against the young Chinese star just after the half hour. Huang Bowen also impressed, showing more enterprise and confidence in his own attacking abilities than usual and leading Damjanović to comment after the match on how much he has improved since leaving Korea last summer.

Still, a combination of solid defending and tactical fouling that largely went unpunished by the Bahraini officials (though skipper Ha Dae-Sung saw yellow for dragging down Conca just before the break) was enough for Seoul to maintain parity until half time. Yun Il-Lok, whose introduction had changed the course of the first leg, was brought on for the quiet Ko Yo-Han after the interval, but the substitution had less impact this time, and Kim Yong-Dae had to deal with shots from Muriqui and Huang within the first few minutes.

Zeng Cheng tipped over a dipping strike from Ha nine minutes into the half, but less than five minutes later Evergrande finally took the lead they deserved with a very well-worked goal. Kim Young-Gwon dispossessed Damjanović in the Evergrande box and seven passes later Elkeson was beautifully flicking Muriqui’s slightly short through ball on ahead of himself and gunning past Adilson to fire a screamer of a shot past the keeper. The noise in Tianhe stadium was thunderous as the Brazilian ran, arms pumping, to celebrate with his teammates. With FC Seoul now needing two and having had just the single shot on target so far, the trophy seemed within touching distance.

The celebratory din was abruptly silenced four minutes later when Feng Xiaoting miscontrolled a tricky ball and then got into a tangle with Zheng Zhi while trying to get it back again, allowing Escudero to nip in and set up Damjanović to rifle home the equaliser with his first chance of the game. Perhaps the clash and subsequent heated exchange just beforehand between Muriqui and Kim Jin-Kyu (who would see yellow within three minutes for a foul on Conca) had distracted the team. They momentarily seemed as shocked as their supporters, and Zeng almost fumbled a header on target less than two minutes after the restart, though the Montenegrin striker was offside anyway.

The home team’s defence had been playing excellently up to that point, with Kim Young-Gwon in particular immense. Feng made up for his error for the goal as the game entered the final quarter, blocking an Escudero pass to Damjanović when the goalscorer seemed poised to double his tally. Feng injured himself in the process and needed treatment, but he was eventually able to continue.

By this stage, Guangzhou had restored a measure of control over the contest. Gao Lin had replaced Zhao Xuri on 67 minutes, and his fresh legs were causing FC Seoul’s increasingly weary ones plenty of trouble on the right. As the game neared its end, Guangzhou fans’ hearts were stuck firmly in their mouths, aware that just one slip-up could render all their superiority over the course of the game irrelevant.

However FC Seoul had been run ragged, as per Lippi’s gameplan, and the errors were all theirs as the clock ticked down, putting the lie to Damjanović’s claim beforehand that the K-League team’s superior stamina would give them the edge in the closing stages. A Molina corner two minutes from full time that curled over everyone in the box and out past the byline summed up their inability to make anything of their chances, though to be fair Molina had been making a mess of set pieces all evening.

Qin Sheng was brought on for Muriqui as the game moved into injury time, and got straight into his hard man act. Seoul’s assistant coach threw an out of play ball a little too strongly at Dario Conca, who leaped backwards dramatically as if shot by a cannon, and Qin had to be restrained by his teammates from going after the miscreant as he got his marching orders. The crowd took their cue from the Liaoning native, showering the unfazed and cheekily gesturing Korean with abuse, plastic cups of water, and whatever garbage was to hand, with missiles even being launched from the press box (and merely succeeding in hitting home fans in the back of the head)!

These ugly scenes were quickly forgotten when the whistle blew moments later to seal the result and crown Guangzhou as continental champions on the basis of having scored one more away goal than FC Seoul, making Lippi the first manager ever to lead teams to Champions’ League glory on two different continents. Questioned in the press conference afterwards about whether the inability to beat their opponents in either leg undermined Evergrande’s status as champions, Lippi pointed out the very large margins of victory they had achieved in previous rounds before stating:

“I would like to personally justify this by saying that I lost a UEFA Champions League final against AC Milan and they hadn’t won any of their previous three Champions League matches, they drew them all and we lost on penalties. They won and became champions of the UEFA Champions League. Anything can happen but I think this year in all of Asia throughout this year we are the team that deserves this the most.”

Lippi and Muriqui post-match press conference

Lippi and Muriqui at the post-match press conference

Muriqui beside him had little to say and in fact looked quite glum, despite having been awarded the prizes for both competition top scorer and MVP before the Champion’s League trophy had been presented by AFC President, Bahraini Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa. Perhaps he was disappointed that he had failed to score in either leg of the final, apparently having had a special celebration planned if he did. Maybe he was also aware that there was quite a bit of surprise that he had been selected as MVP over Conca, the fact that his 13 goals had made him the record goalscorer in the competition’s history presumably being the deciding factor there.

Meanwhile, back out on the pitch, what were surely some of the most incredibly over the top celebrations of a footballing victory ever seen were under way. The festivities unsubtly doubled as promotions for some of the other products Evergrande sell these days. Pyrotechnics and an ongoing light show dazzled the eyes as numerous singers from Evergrande Music performed near giant bottles of Evergrande water while a cast of (at least) hundreds performed elaborate set piece dances on the pitch behind them.

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Lights!

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Streamers!

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A cast of hundreds!

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Umm…

Qin Sheng takes it all in.

Qin Sheng takes it all in.

Gao Lin; Feng Xiaoting and daughter; Zhang Linpeng

Gao Lin; Feng Xiaoting and daughter; Zhang Linpeng

Conca and sonIMG_5932smAfter a while, the Evergrande players who had been hemmed in the mixed zone with journalists were released and allowed out to play. There seemed to be barely any security restrictions as dozens of fans and hangers-on milled about taking photos with the players, getting autographs, and generally being very excited at being able to get so close to their heroes.

Conca brought his kid and a ball out to the corner flag for pictures, before all the players and staff piled onto the back of one of the garish trucks that had been used to ferry the singers about. Despite it being almost two and a half hours since the match had ended, the stadium was still about half full as the vehicle trundled around the pitch allowing the victors to show off the trophy to all corners. Once the lap of honour had been completed, the show finally finished, and everyone left the stadium to paint the city outside red.

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Guangzhou will now go on to face Al-Ahly in the their Club World Cup quarter final in Morocco on December 14th after the Egyptian side beat South Africa’s Orlando Pirates in the CAF Champions’ League final on Sunday. The fact that the domestic football season in Egypt has been cancelled since July, the second year running the league has been left unfinished due to political upheaval, might give Evergrande cause for optimism on the surface, but Al-Ahly are not the most successful club in African footballing history for nothing.

This was their second consecutive continental triumph, to add to the four others they have won since the turn of the millennium. At last year’s CWC they beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the quarter finals before narrowly losing to Corinthians in the semis, driven by a desire to honour the memories of the fans who lost their lives in the Port Said massacre, and will doubtless prove tough opponents for the Chinese debutant club. The winner of this fixture will go on to face UCL title holders Bayern Munich on the 17th of December

Before this though, there is the small matter of the CFA Cup semi-finals against Beijing to be held on the 23rd and 27th of November. It is as yet unclear if Conca, who will certainly appear in the CWC matches before leaving for Fluminese, will also turn out for the domestic cup, which is now only really of importance from a completionist’s point of view. If Guangzhou take the idea of the treble seriously enough to make it through to the final, they will face last year’s opponents Guizhou Moutai on the first and seventh, with the second leg again at home.

Party over

After the party

Guangzhou Evergrande: 19 Zeng Cheng; 32 Sun Xiang, 6 Feng Xiaoting, 28 Kim Young-Gwon, 5 Zhang Linpeng; 10 Zheng Zhi, 37 Zhao Xuri, 16 Huang Bowen; 15 Conca, 11 Muriqui, 9 Elkeson
Subs: 22 Li Shuai, 29 Gao Lin (for 37 Zhao Xuri 67′), 8 Qin Sheng (for 11 Muriqui 90′), 4 Zhao Peng, 7 Feng Junyan, 14 Feng Renliang, 33 Rong Hao

FC Seoul: 1 Kim Yong-Dae; 8 Adilson, 4 Kim Joo-Young, 6 Kim Jin-Kyu, 5 Cha Du-Ri; 11 Molina,16 Ha Dae-Sung, 22 Ko Myong-Jin, 21 Ko Yo-Han; 9 Escudero, 10 Damjanović
Subs: 31 Yoo Sang-Hoon, 24 Yun Il-Lok (for 21 Ko Yo-Han 46′), 17 Choi Hyun-Tae (for 16 Ha Dae-Sung 84′), 2 Choi Hyo-Jin, 7 Kim Chi-Woo, 18 Kim Hyun-Sung, 29 Lee Sang-Hyup, 33 Choi Tae-Uk

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.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Piers Hunday

    13/11/2013 at 18:46

    Great pics and report! That b****dy 2 hour concert nearly put a dampener on the whole evening for us fans that were on the side not facing the podium- I really hope the owner never subjects us to a display so similar in appearance to the Mass Games in Pyongyang again! As for the result-I felt a little bit strange at having won on away goals but Lipp’s quote does ring true and justifiably we have been the dominant force in Asia all the way this season. Next stop-Morocco, will you be getting the press room treatment there also?!

    • GZBiffo

      14/11/2013 at 13:18

      I missed out on about half of the ‘celebrations’ through going to the post-match press conference and then faffing about in the press room for a bit. When I did wander back out into the arena, I was near the NW corner flag (as you can see from the pics), so couldn’t really see the stage, though being so close to speakers I could certainly hear what was going on. Found it all most surreal.

      And have you looked flight prices to Agadir!? Given I spent a couple of months back in Ireland during the summer, I think a trip to Morocco before Xmas is out of the question!

  2. Damian Jones

    13/11/2013 at 21:55

    At times the after-party/Evergrande self promotion show was quite depressing. Behind the goal we had the added bonus of the performance lights shining directly into our eyes.

    Still, the atmosphere at the stadium was something else with so many people bouncing off the walls and the Champions of Asia tag is something the city of Guangzhou can forever cherish.

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