After an unsteady stumble through Group G, ACL holders Guangzhou Evergrande kicked off the knockout stage of their title defence by spectacularly eviscerating Cerezo Osaka on their own turf. One point in three away group games may have given potential opponents hope that fragility on the road was developing, but the five goal haul here, their biggest in the competition since their continental debut at Jeonbuk Motors, will have put an end to any of that.
AFC Champions League Round of 16 First Leg
Cerezo Osaka 1
Aria Jasuru Hasegawa 30′
Guangzhou Evergrande 5
Muriqui 22′, 84′, Elkeson 34′ (pen.), 37′, Gao Lin 78′
Though it was these sides’ first encounter, Osaka had already lost at home to Chinese opposition this year, going down 3-1 to Shandong Luneng in March. In Jinan a fortnight ago, Diego Forlan and young international striker Yoichiro Kakitani both netted to avenge the earlier defeat and seal progression to the next stage, but the whole team will need to put in performances of a lifetime at Tianhe next Tuesday to save this tie.
That’s not to say Cerezo played particularly badly, and certainly not in an end-to-end opening half hour where they gave almost as good as they got, with Forlan misfiring a couple of times but also seeing Kim Young-Gwon booked for bundling him over. The visitors (though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the crowd noises) had more of and the better of the chances though, with lots of well-worked interplay between the front three, and indeed the three behind them.
The deadlock was broken midway through the half after a one-two with Diamanti sent Muriqui through on Kim Jin-Hyeon, the Brazilian demonstrating his easy confidence of old to finish past the keeper. Forlan was instrumental in setting up Hasegawa’s equaliser with a deft run and cross from the right on the half hour, but parity wasn’t to last long.
Within seven minutes the home side were two behind to an Elkeson brace, the first a penalty he both earned (or rather was gifted by the cautioned Yuta Someya) and scored, and the second from a delightfully precise flick of the head onto Diamanti’s equally impressive free kick from deep. Liao Lisheng’s low drive went close soon after, and Cerezo’s manager Ranko Popovic must have been happy just to get to the break without taking additional damage.
Home rearrangements were extensive, with two defenders being replaced by a midfielder and a forward. However when Osaka’s players weren’t misplacing passes they got little change from a mean Evergrande defence, and as Forlan and cohorts started to run out of steam and optimism (35 in a fortnight’s time, the Uruguayan legend probably hadn’t been expecting this kind of runaround when he moved to Japan), it became more a matter of when than if the champions would extend their lead.
All three foreign forwards were excellent, even if official man-of-the-match Elkeson had a quiet second half before being subbed off for Gao Lin. Diamanti was constantly involved and should have had a goal to go with his two assists when he struck the woodwork right before the final whistle, though there were still moments of pointless greed to go with the improved work-rate (perhaps spurred on by his omission from the recent Italian national squad?)
But it was Muriqui, his early season troubles left far behind, who was the real star of the show. He set up Gao Lin for his side’s fourth in the 78th minute (after which the watching Japan national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni decided he’d had enough and left) and the Henan man returned the favour six minutes later, crossing for last year’s competition MVP to dive at the ball and score a goal that ended his participation in the game; having slid head-first into the right post, he had to be replaced by Rong Hao. He seemed okay afterwards though.
It could have easily been more than five; besides Diamanti’s miss, Kim had to save sharply from substitute Huang Bowen before time ran out, and there were a number of other decent chances throughout. Cerezo can rue some wasted opportunities, but Guangzhou were simply in terrifying form, and while this J-League side are hardly a litmus test (this being only their second time in the competition and their domestic campaign not having started particularly well), this display showed – if it needed showing – that the trophy will not be easily prised from the Cantonese grasp.
Cerezo Osaka: 21 Kim Jin-Hyeon; 14 Yusuke Maruhashi, 23 Tatsuya Yamashita, 3 Yuta Someya, 4 Kota Fujimoto; 5 Aria Jasuru Hasegawa, 30 Gojko Kačar, 2 Takahiro Ogihara; 8 Yoichiro Kakitani, 6 Hotaru Yamaguchi, 10 Diego Forlán
Subs: 13 Takumi Minamino (for 4 Kota Fujimoto 46’), 17 Noriyuki Sakemoto (for 3 Yuta Someya 46’), 20 Kenyu Sugimoto (for 2 Takahiro Ogihara 63’)
Guangzhou Evergrande: 19 Zeng Cheng; 32 Sun Xiang, 28 Kim Young-Gwon, 6 Feng Xiaoting, 5 Zhang Linpeng; 2 Liao Lisheng, 10 Zheng Zhi, 37 Zhao Xuri; 11 Muriqui, 15 Alessandro Diamanti, 9 Elkeson
Subs: 29 Gao Lin (for 9 Elkeson 73’), 16 Huang Bowen (for 37 Zhao Xuri 76’), 33 Rong Hao (for 11 Muriqui 73’)