For years, Chinese fans have endured little but disappointment in the AFC Champions League, with their clubs struggling to even progress beyond the group stage. Indeed, the last time a Chinese Super League side took the competition by storm was in 2005, when an unfancied Shenzhen Jianlibao side swept past the likes of Suwon Bluewings and Al Ahli to reach the last four.
With Guangzhou Evergrande's meteoric rise, however, the faithful from the world's most populous country finally have something to cheer about in the continental arena. Despite this being their first experience of the Asian showpiece, the Chinese champions have proved to be one of the tournament's biggest surprise packages, dominating a formidable group which also features 2006 winners Jeonbuk Motors, Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol and Buriram United of Thailand.
With seven points from four games, including a 5-1 victory at Jeonbuk in the opener, the eye-catching Evergrande enjoy a solitary-point lead ahead of both the K-League champions and Buriram. A home win against Jeonbuk in their penultimate fixture next Tuesday is likely to see them seal early progression, although the Chinese hopefuls have set their sights beyond that, with an ambitious target of winning the Champions League within five years.
"We are now group leaders and the good showing should be attributed to the efforts of everyone, from coach to players," club president Mr Liu Yongzhuo told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "Of course, our strong financial support, the players' hunger for success and management all contributed to making this happen. Our target is to reach the quarter-finals at least and, ideally, to make it to the semi-finals."
Guangzhou's impressive performance in the Champions League came on the back of their fairy tale domestic campaign last season, during which they became the first newly-promoted side to win China’s top flight. However, it has been in this debut in Asia’s premier competition that they have really captured the continent’s imagination.
Although the Chinese first-timers were on the receiving end in a 2-1 stunner against Buriram after stunning group and tournament favourites Jeonbuk, they bounced back in style to register four points against Kashiwa in the back-to-back encounters (0-0 and 3-1) to move to within touching distance of qualification.
Guiding the team is experienced Korean coach Lee Jang-Soo, who took over at Guangzhou in 2010. The former Ilhwa Chunma boss also has nearly one-third of the Chinese national team line-up at his disposal, with former Charlton and Celtic midfielder Zheng Zhi the most notable.
Capturing most attention, of course, is the club’s on-song foreign forward line of Argentinian Dario Conca and Brazilians Muriqui and Cleo, all of whom have been on target thrice so far to share second place in the Champions League scoring chart. Two-time Brazilian Player of the Year Conca was signed midway through last season and proved an immediate success, with nine goals and seven assists in just 13 appearances. Muriqui, for his part, was the team's most consistent contributor throughout the previous year, finishing as top scorer with 16 goals, while Cleo – not to be outdone - also racked up ten goals despite occasional injuries.
And it was not only their entertaining style of play, but also their work-rate that has left viewers mesmerised. Conca certainly provided the attacking spark against Jeonbuk with his dangerous passes and spectacular goals, while Muriqui was unstoppable against Kashiwa, enjoying a hand in all three of his team’s goals.
Admiration and respect
Even after his side’s humbling defeat, Jeonbuk coach Lee Heung-Sil still made a point of paying tribute to Guangzhou's attacking trio. "They are all very good," he said, "They create loads of chances and score good goals." Kashiwa coach Nelson Baptista even cut a relieved figure after his side escaped a home defeat in a game largely dominated by their Chinese rivals. "I am satisfied with the goalless draw because Guangzhou are a good team,” he said. “I don't see this as two points dropped, but as a point won."
With expectations still mounting, Muriqui remains all too aware there are stern tests ahead. "It is hard to win a game while playing entertaining football," said the Brazilian goal-getter, "No team can maintain a perfect record - even Barcelona and Real Madrid lose sometimes. But our recent showings are indeed a timely boost and we are confident of retaining the league title and getting a good result in Champions League."