Reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande took a major step in the defence of their AFC Champions League title on Tuesday night with a 2-1 victory over Yokohama F Marinos far more comfortable than the scoreline may suggest.
AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GROUP G
Guangzhou Evergrande 2
Elkeson 11′ 38′
Yokohama F Marinos 1
Manabu Saito 85′
(Official) Attendance: 38,875
Evergrande, who took a 2-0 lead in the first-half, spurned several chances to further extend that advantage after the break, before a stunning goal from rising Japanese star Manabu Saito gave Marinos hope for the final minutes of the encounter.
In truth, though, the game should have been dead and buried well before Saito’s well-taken goal.
With Alessandro Diamanti only fit enough for a place on the bench and Zheng Zhi still on the sidelines, coach Marcello Lippi opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation which saw Brazilian Muriqui used centrally behind striker Elkeson for the first time this season. Last season’s top-scorer in the competition, Muriqui has struggled with injury in 2014 and has been generally poor when able to take the field. On this occasion, though, he was excellen, with his pace and industry causing problems for Yokohama from the outset.
Guangzhou came out the blocks flying, stroking the ball around with the same swagger that saw them to so much success last term. With just 10 minutes on the clock they took the lead. Muriqui picked out Gao Lin on the right before the China star chipped a perfect cross to Elkeson in the centre of the box. Evergrande’s sharp-shooter made no mistake to claim his second goal of the 2014 competition.
For the first time since the departure of Dario Conca, the hosts looked to have found a balance and rhythm to their game that was worthy of their tag as tournament favourites. Huang Bowen stood up in midfield to take control of the tie in a way that he has too often failed to do so, Zhao Xuri and Rong Hao were industrious, while right-back Zhang Linpeng was inspired. Often considered China’s leading player, Zhang has been below his best thus far this season.
It was the attacking trident who led the charge, however. Muriqui, still hesitant in front of goal, was the creator-in-chief. Elkeson, meanwhile, caused the ageing Yokohama defence considerable difficulty with his powerful running and aerial prowess. Gao, though, has been the star of Evergrande’s season thus far and put in another confident showing. For a player who has so often failed to live up to his clear potential, Gao has built on a good 2013 season to begin this year in the best form of his career. With their foreign players below par, his form has been Evergrande’s saving grace.
The second goal was also made between the attacking unit. Having failed to connect with a wonderful whipped cross from Zhang Linpeng minutes earlier, Elkeson made no mistake to claim his second goal on the 38 minute mark. Muriqui’s deft through-ball opened up the space for his compatriot, leaving Elkeson to loft the ball over the advancing goalkeeper and into the back of the net, via a brave attempt to prevent the goal from defender Yuzo Kobayashi.
Even with the score at just 2-0, the second half had the feel of a mere formality. Elkeson danced through a number of tackles from 45 yards, only to see his shot blocked at the final hurdle. Soon after, Gao Lin placed the ball just wide of the upright having raced clear, while Elkeson would be guilty of the biggest miss of the night after Muriqui had dragged the goalkeeper out of goal before squaring to his colleague. The hosts were dominant.
Yokohama, in truth, offered only limited threat and when their goal did eventually come, with eight minutes left on the clock, it was courtesy of a moment of individual excellence rather than any particular success in breaking down the Evergrande defensive line. Saito, on the fringes of the Japan national side, cut in from the right-flank still yards outside the area before firing a shot back across Zeng Cheng into the near corner. It was a stunning effort and one that the Cantonese could do little to prevent.
The goal set up the tie for a nervous ending, but the Yokohama charge never came. Evergrande were largely comfortable with all that was thrown at them and, with the introduction of Mei Fang, added extra security to the defensive line. Evergrande, then, are back in the Last 16 as the first side ever to top their group in the AFC Champions League three years in succession. There are still many stages to go before talk of a second Champions League crown becomes reality, but there were signs at the Tianhe Stadium on Tuesday that the swagger of last season had returned.
In the biggest game of their season to date, Lippi’s side sent a clear message to their rivals that talk of any post-Conca demise may be a little premature. Out of form they may be, but when the pressure was on, Evergrande once more delivered in confident fashion.
Guangzhou Evergrande: Zeng Cheng; Zhang Linpeng, Feng Xiaoting, Kim Young-Gwon, Sun Xiang; Zhao Xuri (Feng Junyan, Huang Bowen, Rong Hao; Gao Lin (Mei Fang 86′), Muriqui (Diamanti 63′), Elkeson.
Yokohama F. Marinos: Enomoto, Kobayashi, Kurihara, Nakazawa, Dutra (Narawa 83′), Tomisawa, Nakamachi (Fujimoto 63′), Hyodo (Fujita 46′), Nakamura, Saito, Ito.
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