Having reached the last four of AFC Champions League for the first time, all four semi-finalists will go into Wednesday's first-leg meetings hopeful of hitting new highs. Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande, for example, travel to Japan seeking to continue their undefeated run against Kashiwa Reysol, while FC Seoul are aiming to maximise home advantage as they entertain Iranian champions Esteghlal.
Kashiwa Reysol-Guangzhou Evergrande
Kashiwa Reysol-Guangzhou Evergrande
This game looks sure to command huge attention throughout Asia and beyond, given the two teams’ current status and outstanding performances thus far. The hosts, under Nelsinho Baptista, remain the competition’s only undefeated side. Lippi's visitors have, for their part, emerged as the Champions League’s erstwhile top-scorers, with 25 goals spread across ten outings.
The Chinese champions may also go into this rematch with a slight mental edge, having drawn away and won at home in last year's meetings with Kashiwa. Under Lippi, they have become tactically strong, more solid at the back and fiercer in attack. Featuring as many as seven Chinese internationals as well as eye-catching imports like Dario Conca, Muriqui and the in-form Elkeson, Guangzhou have shown they are capable of competing against anyone in Asia.
Nonetheless, Kashiwa have also established themselves among the Asian elite, and this campaign has seen them spring one surprise after another. Having run riot during the group phase, the Japan Emperor's Cup holders twice defeated 2006 winners Jeonbuk Motors before edging Saudi champions Al Shabab. Shouldering the goalscoring responsibility is on-song marksman Masato Kudo, who scored his 16th league strike of the season as they drew 1-1 at Cerezo Osaka over the weekend.
The other attraction
With Korea Republic having accounted for three of the past four winners of the AFC Champions League, FC Seoul welcome Esteghlal under pressure to maintain that fine run. Coached by former Korea Republic striker Choi Yongsoo, the K League champions have fixed their sights on their continental laurels throughout a smooth campaign. Reigning league MVP Dejan Damjanovic, who scored the goal in the return leg against Al Shabab that sealed FC Seoul's progression, will continue his pivotal role up front. In midfield, the trio of Ha Daesung, Yun Illok and Go Yohan can provide the drive and thrust, while an already solid back-line has been further reinforced by the return of Adilson.
To the hosts' pleasure, there are no injuries and suspensions with which to contend. Esteghlal, on the other hand, must do without their defender Khosrow Heydari through suspension. Despite this blow, the visitors can look to Iran national team captain Javad Nekounam and midfielder Andranik Teymourian, who was pivotal as Esteghlal came from behind to defeat Buriram United by 2-1. Farhad Majidi, their 37-year-old skipper, who won the inaugural title with Al Ain, will also provide experience and leadership. Having seen their league match with Mes Kerman postponed, Amir Ghalenoei's outfit are well rested and will arrive hopeful of causing an upset.
Player to watch
Having scored four times in last year's competition to help Guangzhou reach the last eight, Brazilian forward Cleo, who moved to Kashiwa on loan at the start of this season, is aiming to replicate that form with his new club. His knowledge about the Chinese champions can, perhaps, provide Japan’s hopefuls with some sort of edge heading into their first-leg clash.
12 - With nine goals to his name, Guangzhou’s star striker Muriqui is three away from equaling the tournament’s all-time record, set when compatriot Ricardo Oliveira struck 12 times for Al Jazira.
What they said
"We have experience of playing against Kashiwa (Reysol), and even more important is that we are prepared for this rematch. I am proud of my team as we are in the last four. We are ready to defeat any rivals facing us in the games to come," Marcello Lippi, Guangzhou Evergrande coach.