Tuesday's AFC Champions League action includes an eye-catching match-up between two talented and experienced sides, with Pohang Steelers entertaining Shandong Luneng in a top-of-the-table clash in Group E. And while the Koreans may be slight favourites, with memories still fresh of their continent-conquering campaign in 2009, their Chinese opponents are confident of springing a surprise, as star striker Vagner Love explained.
"Pohang are indeed a big team in Asia," said the 29-year-old former Flamengo and CSKA Moscow forward, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. "However, their past record doesn't mean they are invincible today. If we can keep up our good form this season, we have high hopes against them."
Vagner Love's faith is not unfounded, with his side having gone four matches unbeaten in both the Asian and domestic arena, matches in which he has excelled. The nimble striker scored a brace last week as Shandong secured a comfortable 3-1 win at Cerezo Osaka to move to joint-top of their Champions League section with Pohang on four points.
"It is not an easy group for us because, aside from Pohang, both Buriram (United) and Cerezo are tough opponents," Vagner Love continued. "But we entered this new season well prepared. We worked very hard and are now showing our strength as a team. [After the opening two games] we are optimistic of going all the way through to win the continental championship."
Driven by ambition
Throughout the world, football fans are thrilled by Brazilian imports, so many of whom make an impression with their exceptional natural talent. Few of them, however, can match the respect and adoration Vagner Love commanded in Russia. During his two spells with CSKA Moscow, which lasted seven years, he bagged three league titles and four cups, while earning both Russia’s Golden Boot and Footballer of the Year awards in 2008.
"I have been regarded as the most successful foreign player in Russia," said the player who also finished top scorer in the 2009 UEFA Cup. "I spent several great seasons there and made a lot of good friends. My performances there laid the foundation for my move to China last year."
Vagner Love joined Shandong last July in an unexpected move, and while it came as a surprise even for his own fans, the player revealed his thinking behind moving to the world's most populous nation. He said: "The club's ambitions convinced me. During the negotiations they showed me the plans of winning championships and becoming one of Asia's top clubs. So I decided I should move on and face up to some new challenges in China."
"They have a good development plan," the Brazilian added, referring to Shandong's recent launch of a youth training centre in Brazil, where a crop of selected Chinese youngsters will be trained alongside local peers under coaching staff from Sao Paulo FC. "By doing so Shandong can nurture and cultivate their own stars and this will make a big impact in the club's future."
Adding to the satisfaction of their star striker, Shandong have further enhanced the club’s South American contingent with the high-profile pre-season signings of compatriots Aloisio and Junior Urso and Argentinian Walter Montillo, all of whom made their names in Brazil. Furthermore, they are coached by Cuca, the man who led Atletico Mineiro to last year's Copa Libertadores title.
"The team has changed much and improved greatly, and the coaching staff are experienced and knowledgeable,” said Vagner Love. “We have begun to found our feet and are marching in the right direction. What we need to do now is to work as planned and do one thing right at a time."
Vagner Love’s goals against Cerezo - both individual efforts, one with his left foot and the other with his right - were reminiscent of his exploits between 2004 to 2007, during which he figured significantly with CSKA Moscow and earned 21 caps for Brazil. But although his admirers are hoping that this recent return to form will not go unnoticed by Luiz Felipe Scolari, the player downplayed the possibility returning to A Seleção.
“That was a golden period in my career, when I was on my top form. [But] it is difficult for me to return to the national team because I play in a league far from Brazil. All I can do now is to focus on my club duties, try to score as many goals as possible and help my team win more titles.”