Having beaten Qatar’s Lekhwiya 2-0 at home in last month's AFC Champions League quarter-final first leg, Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande are the undisputed favourites heading into the return in Doha.
The experienced core of the Chinese champions is, of course, former once again by captain Zheng Zhi, 2011 Chinese Super League top scorer Muriqui and playmaker Dario Conca. However, a series of emerging youngsters are also preparing to lend a hand as the visitors target an Asian breakthrough by sealing a first-ever semi-final place.
Among these young hopefuls is the on-song Zhang Linpeng, an energetic right-back who is also renowned for his attacking abilities. Having joined Guangzhou in 2011, the former China U-20 captain helped his side win the league title upon their promotion to the top flight the same year. The next season saw him continue to excel on the home front by retaining the championship with Guangzhou, while he also began to shine on the Asian stage, figuring significantly as his side swept past the likes of Jeonbuk Motors and Tokyo FC to reach last year's AFC Champions League quarter-finals, only to be edged out by two-time winners Al Ittihad 5-4 on aggregate.
The 24-year-old maintained his form in this year's Asian campaign as Guangzhou reached the same last-eight stage. However, having seen his side grab a two-goal advantage against Lekhwiya at home in a game the hosts largely dominated, Zhang Linpeng believes that the history will not repeat itself this time around.
"This year our Asian opponents are stronger," he told FIFA.com, "but we have become much stronger, too. This is our second continental campaign so we have more experiences than last year. Lekhwiya are an excellent team, but we have shown we are able to deal with them. Although we are playing away from home, the pressure is on them as they have a two-goal deficit to overcome."
We are in a good shape and our teamwork is excellent. We will continue to prove what we are capable of.
Linpeng also believes that the scoreline is not the only factor in their favour, with the top-level experience of their world-renowned coach sure to come into play. He saod: “As an accomplished manager, Lippi has impressed us with his thirst and determination for victories. He simply wants us to win every match. It is difficult to cope with that challenge both at home and on Asian front at the same time, but Lippi's hunger for wins never changes and his tactics can always lead us to triumphs."
With Zhang Linpeng shoring up the defence, the dynamic Zheng Long was signed from Qingdao Jonoon this July to provide the drive and thrust in midfield. The 25-year-old was twice on target as China thrashed Singapore 6-1 in a recently friendly and, more recently, scored one and set up another in a 2-0 win for the national team against Malaysia.
"My recent international goals provide me with confidence," said Zheng, who made his Asian debut as a substitute in the first leg against the Qataris. "It is my first season with Guangzhou so I am hoping to pull my weight with the club. I will be fully prepared against Lekhwiya.”
Attracting even greater attention is the eye-catching Brazilian striker Elkeson, who is dazzling the Chinese fans and media alike with his skill and goalscoring ability. The former Vitoria and Botafogo forward has become this season's hottest import, topping the C-League's scoring chart with 21 goals. Newly included in Guangzhou's Champions League squad, as a replacement for the departed Lucas Barrios, the 24-year-old opened his account in the competition on his Asian debut by sealing the victory against Lekhwiya.
"I didn't feel differently against Lekhwiya from playing a Chinese Super League side, and we won the match as expected,” said the in-form striker. “But the real test should be the away match. We must prepare well and adapt quickly. I was on target in the first leg and I hope I can emulate this feat in the return."
Another fast-improving youngster is Korea Republic international Kim Younggwon, who forms a solid defensive partnership with Feng Xiaoting. Having joined Guangzhou last year from Japan's Omiya Ardija, the 23-year-old quickly established his place in Lippi's starting line-up. Hailed by the Asian sports press as one the continent's most promising stars, the defender – who previously represented Korea Republic’s Olympic team - has cast his sights beyond the rematch with Lekwiya.
"This team (Guangzhou) is very strong,” he enthused. “We are in a good shape and our teamwork is excellent. We will continue to prove what we are capable of. I hope that we can go all the way in this tournament and, particularly, that we can meet FC Seoul final.”