Chinese quartet target Asian breakthrough
While watching Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai and hosts Sanfrecce Hiroshima this week rub shoulders with the world's elite at the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup, Chinese fans are no doubt hoping that one of their sides can next year turn on a breakthrough performance and progress to the global showpiece.
Their hopes were, indeed, boosted by last month's announcement which allowed the world's most populous country four representatives in next year's AFC Champions League campaign - one more than the previous edition.
Leading the Chinese quartet are Marcello Lippi-coached Guangzhou Evergrande, who completed a league and cup double over the past season, while also storming into the last eight in their maiden Asian appearance. Beijing Guoan, C-League's third-placed finishers, will enter their fifth Champions League campaign, while runners-up Jiangsu Sainty and fourth-placed Guizhou Renhe are hoping to leave their mark on their continental debut.
Evergrande's ever-growing ambitions
Guangzhou may have a feeling of deja vu after last Thursday's Champions League draw pitted them against Jeonbuk Motors, a side whom they thrashed 5-1 in the opener of this year's competition. Thai champions Muang Thong United and Japanese giants Urawa Red Diamonds complete the group line-up.
The past edition saw the Chinese champions come from nowhere to win their section, which also featured Buriram United from Thailand and Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol. They then saw off FC Tokyo 1-0 to reach the last eight where they were edged out by two-time winners Al Ittihad.
Taking heart from the outstanding performance, Lippi's charges have set their sights on going beyond the quarter-finals this time around. And despite the hard, though familiar, assignment Guangzhou have been given, they are confident of breaking new ground on the continental scene.
"Our goals had been set even before the draw," captain Zheng Zhi told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "We hope we can at least go one better than this year by progressing to the last four. And on the back of that we will of course try our best to win the title. We have opponents similar to last campaign but it doesn't matter. We will do what the coach requires and be strong as a team in order to realise our ambitions."
His optimism is not unfounded, considering Guangzhou's enviable line-up which consists of a host of Chinese internationals, as well as star imports in Dario Conca, Muriqui and former Dortmund marksman Lucas Barrios.
"A football match is largely decided by the team's strengths but not the draw," said Guangzhou general manager Liu Yongzhuo. "What we should do now is to prepare well and win every game to fulfill our mission."
Beijing, meanwhile, received an even a tougher draw, with their group featuring newly-crowned Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, 2009 winners Pohang Steelers and Uzbek giants Bunyodkor. Despite the failure to progress beyond the group stage this year, the capital side are aiming to finish among the top two under newly-appointed Serbian coach Aleksandar Stanojevic.
"This group will be evenly contested as all four teams are close to each other," commented club general manager Gao Chao. "It is thus largely down to the preparation of the contestants."
Elsewhere, it is by no means the draw wanted by Jiangsu, who have been thrown into the deep end against K-League champions FC Seoul, J.League runners-up Vegalta Sendai and the play-off winner between Australian champions Brisbane Roar and Thailand’s Buriram United. Despite this, however, the debutants can draw inspiration from their brilliant domestic form this season which had seen them become Guangzhou's only challengers until the penultimate round.
"The Asian campaign is of our top priority for the season to come," Yang Chen, assistant to coach Dragan Okuka, told FIFA.com. “We represent not only our club but also the country. We have no continental experience so we must work hard to stun our rivals."
Their hopes were recently dealt a severe blow with Romanian forward Cristian Danalache, who finished the season as top-scorer with 23 goals, likely to sit out the first-half of the season due to a knee ligament injury. The untimely blow leaves the coaching staff urgently seeking an adequate replacement.
Guizhou, under former China PR coach Gao Hongbo, raised quite a few eyebrows by earning their first-ever Asian appearance. Pitted against Suwon Bluewings, Central Coast Mariners and the yet-to-be-determined Japanese Emperor's Cup winners, the enigmatic Chinese side are expecting to mount a serious challenge for the section's two qualifying spots.
"All of our club, be it officials, coaches and players, are looking forward to the campaign," said defender Sun Jihai. "We are fresh faces on the Asian scene but we want very much to spring a surprise and satisfy our supporters. We hope the continental campaign can spark us to improved form."