Late strike sends Ittihad into semis

A late Al Ittihad goal sent Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande crashing out of the AFC Champions League after a heart-pounding quarter-final second leg.

Fahad Al Muwallad's deflected strike on 78 minutes made it 2-1 in the match and 5-4 on aggregate to the two-time champions, crushing the hopes of the massed ranks of red-clad Guangzhou fans in the southern Chinese city.

Lucas Barrios' individual strike and Dario Conca's well-taken penalty looked to have been enough for the Chinese champions, who at that point were through on away goals.

But Al Muwallad popped up late to squirm a low shot into the Guangzhou goal as the 2004 and 2005 Asian champions from Saudi Arabia went through after their 4-2 win in the first leg in Jeddah.

Al Ittihad will now play either cross-Jeddah rivals Al Ahli or Sepahan of Iran in the semi-finals. But the heartbreak was palpable for FIFA World Cup™-winner Lippi's side, who were in dominant form before being hit by a classic sucker-punch.

Football can be very cruel at times and unfair.
Marcello Lippi, Guangzhou Evergrande coach

"Football can be very cruel at times and unfair," Lippi said afterwards."We have worked all year to become better and to reach our objectives and we came to the ACL with one objective. But I believe we should have passed this round.

"We played well and had plenty of chances to score. Unfortunately we have been eliminated and I want to thank the players for their efforts in this game, they have been playing like a team."

Ittihad's Spanish coach Raul Caneda said: "I always tell the players the same thing, that if we want to play the game without playing it's impossible to win.

"In the first half we were not able to play and in the second half we didn't have an amazing game but we had the pride to have a go with the ball and cause problems. We couldn't just go out and think about waiting for the end of the game because of the 4-2 in the home game."

Barrios gave Guangzhou the lead in the 19th minute, holding off the Al Ittihad defence before turning to clip his shot to the right of Saudi Arabia international goalkeeper Mabrouk Zaid. It was no less than the Chinese side deserved having seen Barrios hit the crossbar just seconds earlier in an opening quarter of the game dictated by Lippi's team.

Guangzhou grasp upper hand
And with ten minutes remaining in the half, Guangzhou claimed the vital second goal when Conca converted with aplomb from the penalty spot after Osama Al Harbi was ruled to have brought down Gao Lin in the area. That left the scores level on aggregate and with Guangzhou holding the upper hand due to the two away goals scored in Jeddah.

Naif Hazazi, Al Ittihad's two-goal hero in the first leg but a surprise substitute on this occasion, sent an unmarked header straight into the arms of Li Shuai from close range as the game hit the hour-mark, underlining the Saudis' threat.

But Guangzhou had ample opportunities to extend their lead, with Conca hitting the post with a long-range effort in the 62nd minute, just two minutes after seeing his sliding effort deflected wide.

With just 12 minutes remaining, Guangzhou were made to pay for their profligacy when substitute Al Muwallad's shot was deflected past Li to book Al Ittihad's place in a fifth AFC Champions League semi-final in nine seasons.