Guangzhou Evergrande have spent lavishly in recent years on top Chinese players and expensive South American imports with the goal of becoming one of Asia’s superpowers.
With a third successive domestic title almost guaranteed, they are now aiming to become the first Chinese team to win the Asian Champions League (ACL) title since the tournament was launched in 2003.
The Guangzhou club take another step toward that goal when they meet Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol in the first leg of their ACL semi-final showdown away.
“I’m extremely satisfied that we have managed to reach this goal,” coach Marcello Lippi said. “We are first in the championship in China, so this has been a very good year.”
Evergrande are the first Chinese team in the ACL semi-finals since Shenzhen Jianlibao made it that far in 2005.
Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, is also on course to make history. He would become the first coach to win Champions League titles in both Europe and Asia, after leading Juventus to the European title in 1996.
Kashiwa, the Japanese champions in 2011, sit in the middle of the table in the J-League, but that could be a positive as the club can now focus all its energies on the Champions League.
Kashiwa’s run in the tournament has been led by Cleo, the Brazilian who arrived in Japan from Guangzhou on loan at the start of the season. They are the first Japanese club since 2009 to reach the semi-final.
“We’ve giving everything to achieve these excellent results,” Cleo said.
Given the historical animosity and current political differences between China and Japan, a match between football clubs from the two nations can be a highly charged affair. Earlier this year, local media reported that around 11,000 security personnel were on duty in Guangzhou for the visit of J-League giants Urawa Reds.
There could be tension in the other semi-final between South Korea’s FC Seoul and Iran’s Esteghlal, as well. Both South Korea and Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup but there was a heated exchange between the teams’ coaches ahead of a final qualifier in June.
* Associated Press