It's ok: Be optimistic
Updated: 2013-05-05 07:43
By Tang Zhe (China Daily)
Beijing Guo'an players celebrate after playing to a 0-0 draw with Sanfrecce Hiroshima on April 30. The club qualified for the knockout stage, as did league rival Guangzhou Evergrande. [Provided to China Daily]
Recent continental success might finally be pointing to a turnaround in Chinese soccer, Tang Zhe reports.
Eight years ago, Shandong Luneng and Shenzhen Jianlibao both represented China in the knockout stage of the AFC Champions League.
Shandong swept all six opponents in the 2005 group games, while Shenzhen cruised into the semifinal.
But after Shanghai Shenhua made the quarterfinals in 2006, Chinese clubs achieved little in the tournament, rarely surviving in group matches, until Guangzhou Evergrande advanced to the quarterfinals in 2012.
Though fast-rising Evergrande made plain its ambition to finish in the top four, the excitement it has brought to its group-play matches has been a surprise.
Evergrande and Beijing Guo'an repeated the 2005 feat, with both making the knockout rounds. Two other Chinese teams - Jiangsu Sainty and Guizhou Renhe - won 13 group points.
Even if Evergrande's performance was somewhat expected, the performance of the other three teams this season has given a much-needed boost of confidence to Chinese soccer.
With its aging lineup and frugal investment in the transfer market, it came as a surprise when Beijing defeated the three-time Asian champion Pohang Steelers and J-League winner Sanfrecce Hiroshima under new coach Aleksandar Stanojevic.
It turned out to be more challenging for Jiangsu Sainty and Guizhou Renhe, who are in the tournament for the first time.
The two teams were widely praised for their fighting spirit in the last round, though their hopes of moving on to the nest round are slim.
With Romanian striker Cristian Danalache the 2012 Chinese league golden boot winner absent, Jiangsu Sainty, the domestic league runner-up has already dropped to 13th place in the Super League. Instead of reserving its forces for the domestic league on weekends, the club sent its best lineup to the Champions League and claimed a 2-1 win against Japan's Vegalta Sendai.
Jiangsu's seven points were tied with Thailand's Buriram United, but it failed to make the last 16 due to goal difference.
In a match against Korea's Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Guizhou came back twice for a 2-2 draw.
More encouraging is China's increasing competitiveness with Korea and Japan.
Beijing neatly highlighted the new dynamic, claiming two wins and two draws against Japanese and Korean teams in Group G.
The four Chinese teams managed a total of 33 points in group games, the same as Japan's teams, while the Korean teams finished with 32.
"The four teams played remarkable group games - we are glad to see all of them place an emphasis on the tournament and make their best effort in each game," said Liu Dianqiu, executive director of the Chinese professional league council."Guizhou and Jiangsu didn't give up through the last minute, and played their best games in the last round, which is quite a feat for the fans."
In an online pool on Sina.com, more than 87 percent of participants said they are satisfied with the Chinese teams' group performances, and have seen an improvement in the Chinese league.
Now, the knockouts
Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou has been eyeing becoming China's first Asian champions since Liaoning in 1990, and is attempting to better last year's showing in the contest, when a late goal saw the club bow out in the quarterfinals.
The big-spending club, which fields the top foreign trio of Paraguayan Lucas Barrios, Argentine Dario Conca and Brazilian Muriqui, will face Australia's Central Coast Mariners in the knockouts.
It's a round Evergrande can't afford to lose, because boss Xu Jiayin expects nothing less than a semifinal berth, and has never hidden his desire to win the trophy.
Making matters more difficult is an eight-hour flight to the away game amid an already tight game schedule. The Mariners, on the other hand, have already won their domestic league and devoted themselves to the Asian tournament.
Brazilian striker Elkeson, who contributed 12 goals in six games in the Chinese league, is expected to give the club's roster a boost if it succeeds against the Australians. Clubs in the quarterfinals will be allowed to adjust their lineups.
Beijing will face a more difficult situation when it takes on FC Seoul, which trashed Jiangsu 7-1 in two games in the round of 16. Adding to the challenge is a lack of depth on the bench.
Beginning with a game at Guangzhou R&F on May 11, Beijing will have five games in 15 days. In addition to two Champions League matches, there are domestic league games against Tianjin Teda and Shanghai Shenhua.
The club has asked the Chinese Football Association to adjust the scheduling of the domestic games.
Stanojevic has won praise from players and fans alike since replacing Portuguese Jaime Pacheco before the season. He also has Beijing in fourth place in the Chinese Super League.
"The players are tired, of course, but everyone's morale is high and they are hungry for better results," said former Chinese national player Shao Jiayi, who plays for Beijing. "More important is the coach's strategy. Stanojevic has done a good job in lineup rotation, and I believe we will have the games going in a favorable direction if we maintain momentum."
Shao said he felt good about the club's second-place group finish, which will see it facing Group E leader FC Seoul at home.
"The opponents in the knockouts will definitely be much stronger. It's not bad to finish second - it reminds us to be modest and alert," the midfielder said. "We are not allowed to be relaxed, but we also don't need to be afraid of any opponent. It's a contest of preparation, competitiveness and the state of play, and the sequence of home games shouldn't be an excuse."