Throughout its decade-long history, the AFC Champions League has largely been one of constant evolution as fresh powers emerged to replace the old, leaving two-time winners Al Ittihad the only side to have claimed the title on more than one occasion. The 2013 edition saw another rising team crowned Asia’s new kings, with Guangzhou Evergrande edging FC Seoul on away goals in the final to claim the title.
The two finalists opened brightly, dominated the group phase and both progressed as section winners respectively. The K League champions went on to sweep past a series of high-profile challengers including last year's finalists Al Ahli en route to the final. Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou, for their part, ran riot in the knockout stage to set up the FC Seoul tie.
In a sense, this year's campaign saw the traditional order shocked again, with FC Seoul and Guangzhou among the tournament’s less-experienced clubs. It marked only Guangzhou’s second Asian appearance, while FC Seoul were three-time participants. Three of the four former winners, meanwhile, failed to progress beyond the group phase and 2006 champions Jeonbuk Motors were knocked out in the Round of 16 at the hands of Kashiwa Reysol.
Guangzhou, under Marcello Lippi, reached the last eight last year. And the Chinese side continued their progress under the Italian in this campaign by lifting the Asian trophy. The triumph not only saw Guangzhou taste their maiden continental success, but also ended China's 23-year wait for a major Asian club title-since Liaoning FC's ground-breaking title-winning campaign in the 1990 AFC Club Championship.
Aside from the success, even more impressive was the fashion which they achieved it. They emerged the tournament's best scorers, racking up 36 goals from 14 matches - 13 clear of their final opponents FC Seoul. After making light work of the group phase, Lippi's charges took the knockout stage by storm with a series of overwhelming victories. A 5-1 aggregate triumph over Central Coast Mariners was followed by another aggregate demolition of Lekhwiya (6-1), before routing Kashiwa 8-1 over two legs to reach the final in style.
Guangzhou's superior firepower can be attributed to the South American trio of Muriqui, Elkeson and Dario Conca, who bagged 27 goals in total. Muriqui, in particular, set a new tournament goal-scoring record with 13 goals to his name, a feat which earned him both the Golden Boot and Most Valued Player awards.
Conca proved the man around whom the team rotated, providing ammunition for the attacking-line, as well as finishing as the tournament's second top-scorer with eight. Elkeson, too, managed six goals in as many games, including netting the goal in a 1-1 draw against FC Seoul which sealed qualification for Morocco 2013. Also impressing was Zhengzhi, who excelled in his captaincy role.
Despite the heart-breaking near-miss in the final, FC Seoul earned respect through their showings. With the entire team performing well, Dejan Damjanovic stood out through his decisive strikes and inspiring displays. The Montenegrin forward was the tournament's third top-scorer with seven goals. Notably, he struck the levellers in both legs against Guangzhou.
While both Guangzhou and FC Seoul made history by reaching the final for the first time, the biggest revelations of this campaign were Buriram United. They became the first Thai club to reach the last eight in a decade after eliminating Bunyodkor in surprising fashion, only to lose out to Iranian champions Esteghlal.
This campaign also saw Kashiwa establish themselves as a genuine force to be reckoned with on the Asian scene. The Japanese dominated the group stage and sealed early progression. They went on to thrash Jeonbuk over two legs, before edging Al Shabab to progress to the last four. It was not until then that their promising campaign was brought to an abrupt end by Guangzhou.
Did you know?
Marcello Lippi became the only coach to win the Champions League titles of both UEFA and AFC, having guided Juventus to the European crown in 1996 with a penalty shoot-out victory over Ajax.
6 - China became the sixth country to win the Asian clubs' flagship competition. After United Arab Emirates' Al Ain won the inaugural edition ten years ago, Saudi Al Ittihad began their dominance with two back-to-back successes. Jeonbuk became the first K League side to carve their names on the Asian trophy in 2006 and next came the Japanese era with Urawa Red and Gamba Osaka prevailing respectively. K League sides reached the final in each of the four previous editions, during which they won on three occasions while Qatar Al Sadd reigned supreme in 2011.
What they said
"Except for winning the World Cup in 2006, this Asian success can equal any other feats I have achieved during my career," Guangzhou Evergrande coach Marcello Lippi
"We entered the campaign aiming to get to the top of Asia and we believed we are capable of achieving that. It was the self-esteem that carried us through. The success marks just a beginning for us, as there are always games awaiting us and trophies to be won," Guangzhou Evergrande defender Zhang Linpeng
"There were some happy times for my players, but there was only one objective and that was to be champions, and we couldn’t achieve it. We have to accept that and we feel sorry about it but that’s football," FC Seoul coach Choi Yongsoo
Winners: Guangzhou Evergrande*
Runners-up: FC Seoul
Losing semi-finalists: Kashiwa Reysol and Esteghlal
*Qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013
13: Muriqui (Guangzhou Evergrande)
8: Dario Conca (Guangzhou Evergrande)
7: Dejan Damjanovic (FC Seoul), Wagner Ribeiro (El Jaish)
Leading goalscorers in recent seasons
2010 - Jose Mota (Suwon Bluewings) 9 goals
2011 - Lee Dong-Gook (Jeonbuk Motors) 9
2012 - Ricardo Oliveira (Al Jazira) 12