Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao have already won a fifth Chinese Super League title in a row, but tonight they look to add a second Asian Champions League crown to their bursting trophy cabinet.
The team from the south of China have put themselves in the box seat for the two legged ACL Final, after battling out a 0-0 draw with hosts Al Ahli in the first leg. However, they’re most likely to take the field without star striker Ricardo Goulart in the decider.
Goulart’s importance can’t be underestimated as he tops a number of the ACL’s most important stats. The Brazilian is leading goalscorer (8), leading shot taker (33) and third highest ranked creative player.
Though Evergrande Taobao can boast numerous internationals and a bevy of Chinese National Team players, Goulart’s goal scoring prowess will surely be missed. To counter that, fans will put currency in the team’s irrepressible manager Felipe Scolari.
Scolari has weaved a magic wand over the team since arriving, and he remains undefeated at the helm of Evergrande. He spoke at the pre match press conference regarding the significance of the match to him, “I haven’t been in China for so long. But I believe this game is important for both the players and myself, and I would like to grab the next championship of my career.” The Brazilian gave little indication of the team’s tactics.
The challenge for Evergrande though will be to find a goal without Goulart. They have many creative outlets in, Paulinho, Elkeson and Huang Bowen, however their opponents Al Ahli can capture the title with as little as a 1-1 draw over the 90 minutes. This will no doubt affect the mindset of the usually attack minded Chinese club.
For their part Al Ahli are appearing in their first continental final. It is in fact the first time the UAE club advanced beyond the group stage of the Asian Champions League. Amongst their squad is South Korean, Kwon, Kyung-Won and Brazilian Lima.
Lima has scored in four of the five ACL games he has played for Al Ahli. Kwon Kyung-Won has plenty of big game experience having played with mighty K-League outfit Jeonbuk in their 2013 and 2014 campaigns. Perhaps though the home grown talent Ahmed Khalil will pose the biggest threat to Guangzhou Evergrande, as the 24 year old has slotted six goals in the tournament so far.
For punters it’s a hard one to pick as a number of unknowns are in play. Guangzhou without Goulart, Al Ahli without regular defender Abdelaziz Hussain, who inexplicably lost the plot and received a red card in the dying minutes of the first leg.
Asked whether he felt his Chinese teammates would be suffering mentally after a disappointing draw with Hong Kong on the international scene, Zheng Zhi’s response was that of a winner.
“We may suffer from that game physically and psychologically, but we’re all professionals. We can recover very well. I’m confident.”
Story compiled by Tony Yang & Lew Dub.