Another week and another set of fixtures in the Asian Champions League knockout stage. With the first leg of the semi-finals commencing on Wednesday before a three-week break, FIFA.com's featured Big Match sees United Arab Emirates' Al Ain entertain China's Shenzhen Jianlibao.
Both sides upset the odds by narrowly overcoming Iran's Pas and Saudi Arabia's Al Ahli in the quarter-finals after going into their return legs at a disadvantage. Drawing 1-1 in the first leg, Al Ain scored two late goals to come back from 3-1 down and qualify on away goals, while Shenzhen, 2-1 behind after the first leg in Jeddah, managed a goal in extra-time to win through 3-1.
Name on the cup?
Al Ain, of course, were the first winners of the revamped tournament two years ago. Adding a considerable dash of self-belief to a quality team, the flamboyant Frenchman Bruno Metsu led the unfashionable team from the Emirati desert to Asia's top club prize. Realising it was a moment to treasure, the sheiks were particularly sorry to lose Metsu, who had arrived in the Middle East shortly after spiriting Africa's Senegal to a fairytale last eight finish at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™.
However, in Milan Macala, they appear to have found another coach equally charismatic. Despite his increasing years and bulging belly, no cause is lost for the Czech and that never-say-die spirit has been transferred to his players. Al Ain's progress to the last four has been peppered with amazing comebacks, prompting many to believe the team have their name written on the trophy.
In their penultimate group match, they scored three goals in the last 10 minutes to overcome Al Wahda 3-2 and retain a hope of a place in the knockout stage. Then, in the crucial last match, they defeated Sepahan by the same score to leapfrog into top spot and qualification to the next round.
Having drawn 1-1 at home and losing 3-1 to another Iranian side, Pas, with seven minutes of the second leg to go, the game appeared to be finally over. But, despite a less-than-convincing performance, the two necessary goals arrived - from the far-from-prolific boot of Helal Saeed - and Macala's team had done it again.
The former Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman national team manager has been forced into making several changes to the side of late. Among the new players are Nigerian Nwoha Onyekachi and Panama pair Alberto Blanco and Luis Tejada, who was voted the Most Valuable Player at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July.
"It takes time for the new players to fit into the team but we have shown we are going in the right direction," said the likeable boss.
A tale of two years
The year 2004 was a golden one for Shenzhen Jianlibao. Founded in 1994 in Shenzhen - a young "immigrant city" in the southern tip of China, it took the team just seasons to reach the top division. Eight years later and they were crowned champions of the inaugural Chinese Super League.
To everyone's surprise though, the reigning champions have been a different side this season. They have won just four of 23 league matches to date and lie fourth from bottom. Shenzhen have been weakened by the departure of international Zheng Zhi as well as their coach Zhu Guanghu, now head of China's national team. But the club's financial difficulties has been much the worse disease, spreading throughout the side and apparently testing players' desire to compete on the domestic stage.
In Asia, however, it has been a very different story. In arguably the toughest group of all they overcame Korea Republic's Suwon Bluewings and Japan's Jubilo Iwata to reach the knockout stage. Shenzhen then produced a superb second leg performance to defeat the more favoured Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia to reach the last four.
"We deserved to win," said coach Guo Ruilong whose committed side combine defensive solidity with lightning counter-attacks. "The quality of our team was reflected in that victory."
"For us it is an advantage to play the return leg on home soil," Li Yi, Shenzhen's two-goal hero against Al Ahli, told FIFA.com. "We will hold Al Ain away and finish off the job back home, just as we did against Suwon Bluewings and Al Ahli."
The Chinese champions will be without forward Djima Oyawole, a long-term injury casualty, and influential defender Li Weifeng, who was sent off in their 3-1 victory over Al Ahli.
"The suspension of Big Head (Weifeng's nickname) will make life extremely difficult in the UAE," added Li Yi, "He is our defensive rock."
Al Ain will undoubtedly start the match and probably the tie as favourites. Even discounting Shenzhen's shocking league form, Asia's west seem to have the upper-hand in duels of late. But Macala will be hoping for a comfortable lead to take to the second leg three weeks later because, as Al Ahli found out to their cost, Shenzhen have proved they are capable of anything on their day.