Paulinho headed in a Yu Hanchao corner in the final minute of stoppage time to grant Guangzhou Evergrande a stunning comeback victory in their FIFA Club World Cup quarter-final against Club America. The champions of China and Asia looked down and out after Oribe Peralta had put their Mexican opponents ahead 10 minutes into the second half, but an 80th minute Zheng Long strike was followed by Paulinho’s 93rd minute heroics to set-up a massive semi-final against FC Barcelona this coming Thursday.
2015 FIFA Club World Cup Quarter-Final
Guangzhou Evergrande 2
Zheng Long 80′
Club America 1
America had the better of a goalless first half and the CONCACAF champions looked as though they had been rewarded for their efforts when Peralta ghosted in behind a ball watching Huang Bowen to head in Pail Aguilar’s low cross. That was the Mexicans’ fourth good chance in the first ten minutes of the second half and it looked as though they may just have too much for their Chinese opponents.
But the winners of the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League took their foot off the gas and Evergrande showed remarkable resolve to stage a late fightback. Zheng Long’s strike came at the end of a rapid fire counterattacking move which saw Ricardo Goulart play in Paulinho down the left and the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder square the ball to Gao Lin in the penalty area. Gao, who had shifted to the centre forward role just two minutes earlier, did well to hold off an America defender before laying the ball off to Zheng who fired a powerful shot into the net.
Zheng’s effort was quite close to America goalkeeper Moises Munoz who probably should have done more to keep it out, and the 35-year-old custodian could certainly be held responsible for Paulinho’s winner as he came out to claim Yu Hanchao’s delivery only to get caught behind the leaping Brazilian. Criticisms aside, both goals demonstrated Evergrande’s never say die attitude and Paulinho’s winner sparked delirium among the Cantonese side’s staff and supporters.
Somebody who was undoubtedly feeling more ecstatic than most was Feng Xiaoting who had wasted a fantastic chance to equalise when he missed an open goal in the 71st minute. Zheng Long’s corner had been flicked on by the head of Zhang Lingpeng and all Feng had to do was direct the ball into the gaping net. In the event, the international centre back kicked nothing but air and laughter was audible from inside the stadium as replays of the miss were shown.
The corner that set up Feng’s chance had come after Zou Zheng had a close range effort spectacularly blocked by a sliding Paul Aguilar. The opportunity had been created by some neat interplay between Goulart and Elkeson and was a sign of how much Evergrande had improved since Peralta’s goal.
In the aftermath of the game, the Mexicans were no doubt ruing their failure to make their earlier dominance pay as a string of chances only produced one goal. In the 14th minute, Li Shuai had to quickly adjust his feet to save Rubens Sambueza’s deflected effort and, about seven minutes later, the Evergrande goalkeeper had to get down low to save a long range effort from America’s largely ineffective centre forward Dario Bendetto.
In between those chances, Robinho had forced Moises into a similar save, but that was the closest Evergrande got to finding the net in the first period. A Paulo Goltz free kick rattled the Evergrande crossbar in the 28th minute and, a couple of minutes before the interval, Li, who did an admirable job deputising for the injured Zeng Cheng, saved from Bendetto at close range before Pablo Aguilar headed over the bar in the scramble that followed.
With their being no foreign player quotas at the Club World Cup, Evergrande opted to play Robinho on the wing as one of five non-Chinese players in the starting line-up, but aside from that single long range effort, the Brazilian international had been anonymous in the first half and he was hooked at half time for eventual goal scorer Zheng Long. The change had little initial effect, though, as America remained on top of the opening second half exchanges. Four minutes after the restart Li Shuai had to save one header from close range before watching Bendetto head a second ball off target while in acres of space just seconds after.
A minute later, dangerously pacy Colombian attacking midfielder Darwin Quintero pulled a shot wide from a tight angle, before Peralta finally found the goal America’s play had deserved. After the goal, the game slipped into somewhat of a lull and, with Evergrande showing little sign of finding an equaliser, Scolari threw Gao Lin on to the right wing in place of Huang Bowen midway through the second period. Within five minutes, Feng had embarrassed himself with his incredible miss and Evergrande looked to be in the ascendancy.
Quintero still forced Li into a 75th minute palm stinging save but, by this point, Evergrande were having much the better of the game. Zhang Linpeng had produced two dangerous crosses within a couple of minutes of Quintero’s effort, but neither Goulart nor Elkeson were quite able to get their heads to them.
Things changed decisively when Yu Hanchao came on for Elkeson in the 78th minute. The Brazilian centre forward may have scored the winner in the AFC Champions’ League final, but he struggled to get into this game and was replaced in the centre by Gao, with Yu moving out to the right wing.
Within two minutes of the change, Gao’s hold up play had helped set up Zheng Long’s equaliser and it was Yu Hanchao’s dangerous corner which had deceived Moises and allowed Paulinho to head in the winner. Indeed, six minutes before Paulinho’s last ditch winner, Yu had a chance to score himself when Gao laid off Zheng Long’s pass, but the former Dalian Aerbin winger’s shot was too close to Moises.
On the balance of the full 90 minutes, Club America probably deserved at least a draw but Evergrande will justifiably have caught international eyes with their performance in the final 20 minutes. And, significantly, that display was largely made in China.
Of course, Paulinho scored the winner and Goulart’s contribution was vital, but Zheng Long and Yu Hanchao added vigour to the Evergrande attack, while Gao looked every inch the very good Chinese centre forward that apparently doesn’t exist and that he has failed to be while playing for the national team. Without Elkeson and Robinho on the field, Evergrande looked much far more fluid and brought back memories of some of those dominant mid-season CSL displays when Goulart was their only healthy foreign player.
With Barcelona lying ahead, Scolari now has an interesting decision to make over whether Robinho and Elkeson retain their starting places. Absolutely nobody expects Evergrande to beat the reigning European champions and it would be nice to see more of the Chinese lads given a chance to test themselves against Messi and co.
Whatever happens on Thursday, though, Evergrande’s players will justifiably be able to revel in this victory for some time to come.