Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande proved unstoppable over the past year as they won both the Asian and Chinese crowns. While the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup participants ran riot on the home and continental front there were, however, a couple of rivals who did cause some headaches for the Italian coach.
Topping Guangzhou's nemesis list were Guizhou Renhe, who inflicted the biggest upset on Lippi's side with a 3-2 aggregate victory in this year's Chinese FA Cup final. Having retained the C-League title unchallenged and won the AFC Champions League in smooth fashion, Guangzhou were the undisputed favourites heading into the Cup final first leg at Guizhou - a side they had thrashed 4-0 in May.
What had been anticipated to be another routine win for Guangzhou ended in a stunning 2-0 triumph in Guizhou's favour, with a pair of second-half goals from Yu Hai. The in-form attacking midfielder went on to open the scoring in the return match and although Guangzhou struck twice to take the lead, Guizhou hang on to their aggregate advantage to clinch their maiden FA Cup.
"The FA Cup success was a happy surprise for us," Gong Lei, who took over from former China coach Gao Hongbo at the start of this year, told FIFA.com. "Guangzhou are a strong side in Asia so we were the underdogs in the eyes of even the pundits. But no team are invincible. We studied the opponents thoroughly, employed an effective strategy. We were better prepared and we believed we could spring a surprise this time. I was pleasant surprised we made it."
The shock was such that even Lippi gave his opposite number the thumbs-up post match. "Through his assistant, Mr Lippi praised us and said we had prepared for every detail. Indeed, my philosophy is down-to-earth work as details can make the difference," added the 48-year-old former striker, who achieved significant success with Tahiti's AS Pirae by twice winning the local league's Golden Boot award in the mid 1990s.
The Cup triumph not only saw Guizhou round off the season in style, but also earned them automatic qualification for next year's AFC Champions League-at the expense of Beijing Guoan. It marks only Guizhou's second Asian appearance, having experienced their maiden Champions League campaign this year. Their continental fiery baptism didn't go their way, though, with Gong's debutants narrowly failing to progress beyond the group phase. Despite the disappointment, Guizhou did show their teeth in defeating Central Coast Mariners 2-1. Their draws against Suwon Bluewings were also encouraging and they conceded a mere goal against section winners and eventual semi-finalists Kashiwa Reysol over two legs.
"These matches provided us with precious Asian experiences," Gong Lei reflected. "Our performances against these Asian powers boosted our confidence but most importantly, we displayed our unity and capabilities and the players made progress in Asia's showpiece."
The opponents’ line-up look familiar for Guizhou this time, with the Chinese Cup winners pitted against 2012 champions Ulsan Hyundai, Western Sydney Wanderers and a Japanese side (Kawasaki Frontale or Yokohama F. Marinos). And it is the K League runners-up that has Gong Lei on edge.
He said: "We are a team used to counter-attack so we can deal with the J.League teams who depend largely on passing and techniques. But we should work hard and sort out a strategy against the rivals with a similar playing style to us. In all our eight league losses, five were against counter-attacking opponents. Ulsan are such a team who demonstrated their pace and attacking as they won the Champions League last year."
After guiding Guizhou to the milestone FA Cup achievement in his first year in charge, Gong Lei has fixed his sights on a new breakthrough at continental level. Under him, Guizhou have reached a perfect balance between old and new, with a series of emerging talents complementing the team's established stars represented by former Manchester City defender Sun Jihai and Bosnia-Herzegovina international Zvjezdan Misimovic.
"The experiences of our veteran players are important for us. Ji Hai proved a cornerstone at the back-line and Misimovic also did his job well. The latter was awarded his country's Player of the Year honour as a result of his brilliant performances in China, as well as his contribution in helping the national team to their first-ever World Cup finals."
Gong was also pleased to see a host of young stars progress successfully through the ranks. "Yu Hai's progress is evident and he has become a lethal weapon of our team. Fan Yunlong is a talented midfielder and should be a player to watch. We have yet to figure out a Champions League goal to add to the players' burden, but our aim is to get the best out of everyone, not only players but also coaching staff. The results comes naturally as long as we maintain our good momentum.”