Guangzhou Evergrande begin the 2014 AFC Champions League knockout phase just as they opened the group stage, with a mouth-watering encounter against rivals from the A-League. Marcello Lippi’s Asian champions started their title-defence with a 4-2 comeback victory against Melbourne Victory in February, and awaiting them in Wednesday's quarter-final first leg are none other than Australian champions Western Sydney Wanderers, the tournament surprise packages who progressed to the last eight in their Asian debut.
Tony Popovic's Wanderers have taken their maiden Asian campaign by storm, edging experienced Japanese side Kawasaki Frontale to top Group H. The novices proceeded to get past Sanfrecce Hiroshima on away goals over two legs in the Round of 16, setting up an intriguing clash with Guangzhou. While the Australians have proved more than capable of springing a surprise, Guangzhou’s midfielder Alessandro Diamanti opted to downplay the tension ahead of the showdown.
"I am not interested in commenting on the opponents," the Italian international told FIFA.com prior Wednesday’s first leg match in Sydney. "If Guangzhou want to retain the Asian title we must win against all opposition. To achieve that, we should fully prepared for the matches to come."
Diamanti's confidence is not blind, considering his marked performance against Melbourne Victory in the tournament curtain-raiser. Playing in his Chinese debut, the former Bologna captain made an immediate impact when he nearly single-handedly inspired his side to fight-back and triumph 4-2 at home.
Guangzhou were expected to open this year’s continental campaign with a bang, but it was Melbourne who stole the show in the first half earning a surprising 2-0 lead. Stunned but not intimidated, the hosts were desperate to claw themselves back into contention in the second half. And Diamanti emerged the man who rose to the occasion, starting a move which ended in Huang Bowen pulling one back for the hosts, before pulling the scoreline level with a stunning strike. After Elkeson fired the home side into lead, Diamanti rounded off his remarkable maiden display by sealing the win with a spectacular solo effort.
It came as a match during which the former Bologna captain truly lived to the expectations. "It was an amazing debut performance for me," Diamanti said. "It started my adventure in China in style. So far everything has been good here and I am hoping to prolong my Chinese journey. I hope that I can step up a gear and play better for the rest of this season."
Despite putting in stellar performances in the Chinese Super League as well as on Asian scene, Diamanti, who figured for Italy during last year's FIFA Confederations Cup, missed out on a place in Cesare Prandelli's 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ squad. With reports citing the former Italy manager placed reference to those playing in top European leagues, Diamanti maintained that he does not regret moving to the Far East.
"If he (Prandelli) thought that I missed the World Cup simply because I play in China, I didn't care,” he explained. “I think I am lucky as I have made the right decision (in coming to China). Had I been asked to again determine where to go, I would still choose China."
Having said that, playing in the fast-growing league has not always been easy. After winning the domestic title three times on the trot, Lippi's Guangzhou have been met with stiff challenge this season, suffering three losses that their cushion at the summit trimmed to seven points ahead of Beijing Guoan, who have a match in hand.
"The Chinese League is rather competitive," Diamanti concluded. "Every match is highly contested. It is not easy to play against the tough opposition and win matches. As a player, you have to keep fit and maintain form if you want to get a good result. You should work very hard."