Only three Chinese clubs have ever reached the AFC Champions League final. Out of the three, two were winners whilst the other sadly lays dead and buried; its ashes lay painfully discarded somewhere in Dalian, as yet another once successful club sits in ruin.
Out of the two victors, only one remains a threat both domestically and continentally. The other, still vaguely reminiscent of a football team, lays in China’s second tier after years of financial turmoil, scandal and controversy.
Which leaves us with one. Guangzhou Evergrande. The Canton outfit lifted the trophy last in 2015, two years after an Elkeson brace saw the side win their first continental championship by the fine margins of the away goals rule back in 2013.
Paulinho, who had become a mainstay of the Barcelona side during their double winning side, decided that playing with Messi and co wasn’t for him and so returned to the Far East. With the astronomical riches that the Chinese Super League has to offer for players, the success, or failures should we say, of Chinese clubs in the AFC Champions League has left very little to be desired.
In a competition dominated historically by Saudi and South Korean sides, Chinese fans can certainly feel rather aggrieved about their lack of things to cheer on the main stage. Add in Japan’s recent success and the situation looks quite bleak.
This year though, things could maybe be on the up as the four Chinese sides sides look poised to go deep into the tournament.
Group E paints a pretty picture for Shandong Luneng fans. Unbeaten at the top and with 8 points to their name, Li Xiaopeng’s side will be welcoming Gyeongnam to the Jinan Olympic Sports Centre Stadium knowing that a win will see them through to the round of sixteen stage. The sides shared the spoils in South Korea, playing out a 2-2 draw.
With two wins over Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta’zim to their name, along with holding last year’s champions Kashima Antlers to a draw, the three times CSL Champions are in prime position to progress.
Early pace setters in the Chinese Super League, Beijing Guoan are enjoying the perfect start to this season domestically; looking unstoppable after winning all seven of their matches so far.
The Imperial Guards sit just two points off the summit of Group G, and more importantly three points above third placed Urawa Reds.
Convincing wins against struggling Buriram United has propelled Roger Schmidt’s side up the group following a tricky start which saw them only pick up one point from their first two fixtures. With Nico Yennaris, sorry – Li Ke, finally getting game time and with a defence that has only conceded two league goals so far, Guoan could go far.
Shakespeare once noted that ‘Tears water our growth’ in relation to coping with loss. Shanghai SIPG’s start to life post-Wu Lei has been an intriguing one to say the least. With 27 goals to his name last term, you could certainly be forgiven to expect the side to be quite toothless in front of goal.
Lyu Wenjun, Yu Hai, Wang Shenchao and Hulk all have a goal to their name in the Champions League so far whilst the latter’s compatriot, Elkeson, has netted twice; a sign that the side are still clinical in the final third. They have conceded six however in their first four games, and it is this leaky defence that could cause them problems later down the line in the competition.
With Kawasaki and Ulsan to come, SIPG face stern, yet winnable challenges that should see them through. The fact that the club can put out a side featuring both Odil Ahmedov and Elkeson is a huge boost for SIPG, as it is usually one or the other in the league given the foreign players limit.
Now, the rules that define the CSL ensures that no more than three foreign players can be part of a match day squad: a hinderance to the big spending sides. So, after Evergrande’s seven year run of dominance finally came to an end, a bright spark in Guangzhou thought ‘hey, why don’t we make this even harder for ourselves?’ and thus came about their astonishing, self-imposed, two foreigner limit.
Makes sense, right…?
This ludicrousy hasn’t stopped Anderson Talisca in carrying out his personal vendetta against every CSL club he plays, before his recent injury, but has left the Reds with a huge fight on their hands to qualify for the next stage. Currently second and only one point ahead of third placed Daegu, the Canton outfit face the South Koreans in their final group game after the daunting prospect of travelling to group leaders Sanfrecce’s Hiroshima Big Arch Stadium.
So who would a betting man say had the best chance of any Chinese club in this year’s Champions League? Talisca’s injury is a huge setback for Evergrande, SIPG are leaking goals all over the shop and Shandong don’t have the squad depth. Guoan have the best chance I believe, but when it comes to football in the People’s Republic, is anything straight forward?
Matchday five of the group stage starts on Monday and sees Guoan welcome Jeonbuk to the Workers Stadium. SIPG and Evergrande make the short trips over the Yellow Sea to Kawasaki and Sanfrecce respectively, whilst Li Xiaopeng’s Shandong Luneng welcome chasing Gyeongnam to Jinan.
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