Having guided his side to a double of Chinese and Asian titles last year, Guangzhou Evergrande coach Marcello Lippi entered this season determined to maintain his team’s lofty standards. And while his team remain on course to emulate their 2013 triumphs, the FIFA World Cup™-winning manager is all too aware off the challenges they face, particularly from their fast-improving continental rivals.
Guangzhou have already been caught out on more than one occasion this season, both domestically and the Asian arena. It was in the AFC Champions League that the early warning signs appeared, with two successive losses against Jeonbuk Motors and Melbourne Victory during the group phase leaving the defending champions on the verge of elimination. Only a narrow home win against Yokohama F. Marinos in their final group match secured progression.
Faced with such difficulties, Lippi opted to rest as many as seven first-choice players over the weekend in a key domestic battle against hosts Shanghai Shenxin - his 100th match in charge of Guangzhou – in order to best prepare his side for Tuesday's Round of 16 first leg tie at Cerezo Osaka. The tactical gamble paid initial dividends too, with Guangzhou edging their rivals with an under-strength line-up to maintain a two-point gap at the summit of the table.
"We rested several key players but still won," said the Italian, who cut a relieved figure. “It was a hard game for us but we grabbed the full points and this result was all the more important."
"Every week the team gives me fresh gifts by winning more matches," he continued, referring to Guangzhou's seven-match winning streak in the Chinese Super League.
The results may have stayed largely the same, but as those following the team closely this season will testify, the Chinese champions have undergone an immense transformation. The departure of Argentinian playmaker Dario Conca at the end of last season has certainly had a major impact, and led to the team floundering in Asian and domestic matches at the start of the current campaign.
They began with a 1-0 loss to Guizhou Renhe in Chinese Super Cup in February, and soon after found themselves two goals down in the first-half of their Champions League opener against Melbourne Victory. Just as defeat seemed inevitable, however, new signing Alessandro Diamanti came to the team's rescue. With two of the matchday's finest strikes, the Italian proved his worth as Guangzhou recorded a memorable 4-2 comeback victory.
Despite that result, Guangzhou's erratic form continued and they again had to fight back to eke out a 1-1 draw at Yokohama, a match in which Diamanti equalised with a sublimely executed free-kick. Then, after pulling off a 3-1 defeat of Jeonbuk at home, they lost the return leg by 1-0 before a 2-0 defeat at Melbourne put their hopes in real danger. Nor were their troubles confined to the Champions League, with a 3-1 home defeat to Changchun Yatai putting a dent in their Super League title defence.
A number of factors contributed to these early difficulties. Diamanti, despite putting in some splendid performances, took time to adapt to the team’s playing style, while year's tournament top-marksmen Muriqui came into the season with an injury and captain Zheng Zhi has been nursing a thigh problem since early April.
The team has, though, began to gel as the competition has wore on. Diamanti has established himself as an effective playmaker while Muriqui has shown signs of returning to his old form, ending a 150-day goal-drought in their 2-0 win against Liaoning Whowin. Elsewhere, Elkeson has also returned to his rampaging best, striking twice as Guangzhou sealed top spot in the group against Yokohama, then hitting a hat-trick in a recent 5-0 demolition of Shanghai SIPG. His attacking partner Gao Lin, who netted a brace against Jeonbuk, is also among the team's most consistent performers.
“It will surely be a hard game (against Cerezo),” said the Chinese international, “but we should be better prepared in terms of fitness. We should try to avoid making mistakes away from home. If we can return with a satisfying result, we are very hopeful of making it through when we play them at home.”