In more ways than one, Marcello Lippi is facing one of the hardest tasks during his two years in charge of Guangzhou Evergrande. The Italian is suspended for his criticism of refereeing as his defending champions cross swords with in-form Beijing Guoan in a top-of-the-table clash on Monday. With the two sides separated by just a point, it is indeed a decider to see which team can finish the first half of the season as leaders of this year's Chinese Super League at the halfway stage.
On the surface, Guangzhou travel to Beijing with the psychological advantage, having recorded two wins and three draws from their six previous meetings. However, it is Beijing that enter the showdown on better form. Gregorio Manzano's side put four unanswered goals past Hangzhou Evergrande at home in the previous outing while Guangzhou were held to a 1-1 draw at Guizhou Renhe, results which combined to reduce the gap between the pair to the slightest of margins.
It has proven to be an epic clash each time they met. The two sides' fast-developed rivalry began in 2011, when they drew against each other both home and away. Under newly-appointed Lippi, Guangzhou drew the first blood with a 3-2 home victory the next season and lost 1-0 in return only after they had already sealed the title. Last year saw Guangzhou held to a 1-1 draw at Beijing but they showed the visitors no mercy in the return match, running out 3-0 winners.
"You should bear in mind that we are the best team in China," Lippi told his players in a pre-match training session. "It is without doubt a hard game. But it is a difficult match for both sides. Beijing can't win easily against us."
Having taken Guangzhou to domestic and continental success last season, Lippi has fixed his sights on repeating the feats this year. While his outfit have maintained their smooth campaign in the AFC Champions League by reaching the last eight, they have met with fiercer challenges on the domestic front. They suffered a rare home defeat in a 3-1 loss to Changchun Yatai, before losing 1-0 against city rivals Guangzhou R&F, coached by Sven-Goran Eriksson. This Wednesday's fixture saw Guangzhou battle from behind to avoid another defeat with Mei Fang cancelling Zhen Zijie’s first-half strike for a point.
"The difficulties we are facing need no introduction," said Mei, who broke his duck against Guizhou after joining Guangzhou at the start of this season, "we have an away game against a tough rival in Beijing, who have no less motivations to win the re-match than us."
With the morale evident in Guangzhou's camp, it is their growing injury list which causes Lippi concerns. Both striker Muriqui and right-back Zhang Linpeng are ruled out due to injuries, while fitness looks a problem with six matches played across 18 days in all competitions. Adding to the woes, centre-back Kim Younggwon has left for the Korea Republic national team in their preparation for next month's 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
"It is an especially difficult time for us, considering a series of key players are doubts for the match," said Feng Xiaoting, the team's proven stalwart who formed a new central defensive partnership with Liu Jian, filling the void left by Kim against Guizhou. "But in spite of all the hardship, we will give our all as we are hoping to defeat Beijing on their home soil."
Manzano's hosts are, for their part, in no shortage of confidence as they have enjoyed a smooth season so far. Under the former Atletico Madrid and Mallorca manager, Beijing have emerged as Guangzhou's nearest title-contenders with the dream of clinching their first league championship since 2009 very much in their sights.
The home side boast the league's meanest defence, marshalled by captain Xu Yunlong, with just seven goals conceded across 13 outings. New Argentinian signing Pablo Batalla has emerged as the team's top marksman with seven goals, while either Peter Utaka or Joffre Guerron are capable of posing a menace upfront against Guangzhou. Although Korea Republic midfielder Ha Daesung is missing due to his national team duties, Chinese international Zhang Xizhe remains the instigator of their attacking moves.
"Up till now, we have focused on winning a match each time rather than aiming to win the first half-season," Manzano opted to downplay the expectations, "the Guangzhou match is crucial for us but even more important is that we obtain the three points. Because only after victory can we talk about the championship and I believe we will leave for holidays in the best mood."