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Victory defeat Evergrande to set up thriller Group G climax

Guangzhou Evergrande stumbled to a third defeat in six matches as Melbourne Victory made up for their second half collapse at Tianhe Stadium seven weeks ago with two unanswered goals. It was a game of many chances, but excellent goalkeeping (each was their side’s standout player) and an error-strewn performance from the away side meant that only Melbourne’s well-taken bookends went in.

Asian Champions League Group Stage Round Five

Melbourne Victory 2
Milligan ‘2, Troisi ’90+1

Guangzhou Evergrande 0

Guangzhou were absent the injured Diamanti and suspended Gao Lin here, so lined up in a 3-5-2 with Huang Bowen positioned as playmaker behind the attacking Brazilian duo of Muriqui and Elkeson. It was a promising set-up, with Huang impressive so far this season, but he wilted under the spotlight and had little positive impact.

At least he wasn’t a pure hindrance like the woefully out-of-sorts Zhao Xuri. As in Tianjin on Friday last, he was charged with shielding the backline and as then failed miserably. A mere minute was on the clock when he was given the ball in the middle of his half and, dawdling under pressure, found himself quickly dispossessed by opposition captain Mark Milligan. He was left for dust as Jesse Makarounas surged forward with the loose ball and returned it all too easily through the inattentive Guangzhou defence for the skipper to slot home.

The back unit had an escape ten minutes later; caught too high up the pitch (Zhao was almost at the Melbourne box), they were helpless as Kosta Barbarouses broke past Kim Young-Gwon on the counter, but despite an abundance of time and space he failed to get the ball past Zeng Cheng. By the midpoint of the half, Lippi had seen enough and pulled Zhao for Rong Hao, switching to the more regularly employed 4-3-3.

This precipitated ten minutes of heavy Guangzhou pressure, but unlike last time Melbourne were prepared for the switch. They may have been inadvertently helped by an injury to centre-back Adrian Leijer, as after he was replaced by Leigh Broxham the tide turned and by the end of the half the hosts were emphatically back on top; in fact they could well have gone in ahead by more if not for Zeng’s superb efforts in goal.

Zheng Zhi had started for the first time since his injury against Jeonbuk two weeks ago, but only lasted until the break when Mei Fang took his place. The pattern of the game changed not a whit though as Melbourne, having learned their lesson in Guangzhou, refused to sit back on their lead, and both Makarounas and Connor Pain should have done better with opportunities in the opening fifteen minutes of the second half.

Guangzhou had to wait until after the hour mark, when Feng Xiaoting made way for Feng Renliang and Lippi reshaped his side again for a final onslaught, to make any more headway up front. The impact of the changes lasted longer this time, and goalkeeper Nathan Coe and his men had to be at their best to buffer the waves, but there was little of the old conviction about the Evergrande offense.

 Melbourne celebrate their injury-time clincher.

Melbourne celebrate their injury-time clincher.

Boths Brazilians seemed bereft of confidence. Three times in the game Muriqui duelled with Coe and three times he lost, contests he used to specialise in winning. He at least has the excuse of an injury struggle that has prevented his season taking off, but Elkeson seemed to have been returning to his blistering form of early last year in recent CSL ties. This made his rather blundering display here all the more disappointing; twice he completely fluffed great reaction chances at point-blank range, again the kind of shots he usually laps up. Feng Renliang forced one great save out of Coe after coming on, but otherwise threatened little.

This is not to take anything away from Melbourne’s performance, all the more impressive given that a number of regulars were rested in advance of a vital game against Sydney F.C. this coming Friday. The defence was particularly strong; besides Coe’s man-of-the-match heroics, injury returnee Contreras twice headed clear from the goal-line, and the hugely impressive Jason Geria supplied a number of timely blocks and tackles. Evergrande eventually broke upon their solidity, and the game already felt lost before James Troisi finished off a lovely counter-attack in injury time to neatly wrap up the points and send the 13,120 in attendance out happy into the night (apart from the 5,000 or so Chinese fans of course).

This result in combination with Yokohama F-Marino’s equally surprising 2-1 win over Jeonbuk Motors leaves all four teams on 7 points heading into the final group stage games. It’s still advantage to the two teams who looked set for progression just a couple of games ago though – Jeonbuk and Guangzhou host Melbourne and Yokohama respectively with the home sides needing just a point to go through. The games will be played next Tuesday, with Evergrande’s tie kicking off at 20:00; Liao Lisheng will be unavailable for selection due to a late yellow card here, his second in the competition.

Group G after Round 5Melbourne Victory: 1 Coe; 27 Murnane, 2 Contreras, 23 Leijer, 25 Geria; 22 Makarounas, 16 Mahazi, 5 Milligan, 14 Troisi; 9 Barbarouses, 11 Pain
Subs: 6 Broxham (for 23 Leijer 30’), 13 Nabbout (for 11 Pain 70’), 26 Brown (for 22 Makarounas 84’)

Guangzhou Evergrande: 19 Zeng Cheng; 28 Kim Young-Gwon, 10 Zheng Zhi, 6 Feng Xiaoting; 32 Sun Xiang, 2 Liao Lisheng, 16 Huang Bowen, 37 Zhao Xuri, 5 Zhang Linpeng; 11 Muriqui, 9 Elkeson
Subs: 33 Rong Hao (for 37 Zhao Xuri 22’), 3 Mei Fang (for 10 Zheng Zhi 46’), 14 Feng Renliang (for 6 Feng Xiaoting 62’)

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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