FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015

FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015

10 December - 20 December

FIFA Club World Cup 2015

Guangzhou, Al Ahli battle for Asian laurels

Huang Bowen (2R) of China's Guangzhou Evergrande celebrates with teammates

When Al Ahli line up with Guangzhou Evergrande in the Al Rashid Stadium, Dubai in the AFC Champions League final first leg, both teams will be aware that they are on the verge of writing their names into football folklore. Having taken the Asian campaign by storm in reaching the final, the hosts aim to become just the second team from the United Arab Emirates to lift the continental trophy after Al Ain won the inaugural edition in 2003. Visiting Guangzhou have, meanwhile, set their sights on becoming the first side to clinch two titles since Al Ittihad in 2005. On offer for the victor will be a berth in next month's FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. Join as we preview what looks set to be an enthralling opening leg.

The match *Final first leg
*Saturday 7 November, 19:45 (local time)
Al Ahli (UAE)-Guangzhou Evergrande (CHN)

*Road to the final *Having never progressed beyond the group phase in their past five appearances, Al Ahli entered their sixth Asian campaign seeking a ground-breaking result. Their initial hopes materialised when they narrowly secured a place in the Round of 16 by finishing second in their group. The UAE champions had to overcome a disappointing start which had seen them come up with just five points from as many games. However, they pulled themselves through in the group concluder by edging Tractor Sazi 3-2, a result which saw them progress to the knockout stage for the first time on goal difference at the expense of Nasaf Qarshi.

Inspired by the history-making feat and reinforced by new signing of Brazilian Lima, Al Ahli continued their fairytale run in the knockout stage. They twice drew against compatriots Al Ain in the Round of 16 but progressed on away goals, before defeating Naft Tehran both away and home to reach the last four. They went on to draw 1-1 at 2014 finalists Al Hilal, before winning 3-2 at home to set up the final meeting with Guangzhou.

Guangzhou, for their part, maintained their brilliant form on the Asian arena having made it to the knockout stage in each of the past three editions, including lifting the trophy two years ago. Under former manager Fabio Cannavaro, the Chinese champions opened brightly with three opening victories, results which left them on the very verge of progression. Despite suffering a 2-1 loss at Kashima Antlers, they bounced back to draw 0-0 at FC Seoul to progress with a game to spare.

Seongnam FC briefly caused problems in the Round of 16 by inflicting a 2-1 defeat on Guangzhou at home, but still the 2013 winners came on top 2-0 in the return. With Luiz Felipe Scolari taking the reins, they proceeded to eliminate Kashiwa Reysol 4-2 over two legs to set up a champions' derby with 2008 winners Gamba Osaka in the semi-finals. After winning 2-1 at home, Guangzhou kept their cool in negotiating a goalless draw away as they sealed their return to the final.

Formed in 1970, Al Ahli quickly established their place as a team to be reckoned with on the domestic stage. They claimed their maiden league title in the 1974/75 season, repeating the achievement on five more occasions, most recently in 2013/14. Adding to the successes are eight UAE President's Cup titles. They may have never made it past the group phase in their previous five Asian appearances, but under Cosmin Olaroiu, Al Ahli stormed all to way through to the final in this year's campaign.

Guangzhou's rise in Chinese Super League was meteoric. A traditional power previously known as Guangzhou Apollo, the side opened a new chapter after changing owners to Evergrande in 2010. With stronger financial support, the rejuvenated club earned a return to the top flight in 2011. Guangzhou won the league title upon their return as a newly-promoted side and they have never looked back, dominating the domestic stage by bagging the past four league titles. Under Marcello Lippi, Guangzhou became the first Chinese side to win the AFC Champions League in 2013.

The final is the first meeting between the two sides, although they have both boasted rich experience in the Asian showpiece. Notable is the anticipated tactical clash between two exceptionally experienced managers. Scolari's pedigree as a world-class coach needs no introduction and the Brazilian is no stranger on the Asian scene either, having guided Uzbekistan powerhouse Bunyodkor to the knockout stage in 2010. Olaroiu, for his part, boasts impressive Asian knowledge gained from his spells with a number of west Asian clubs.

Players to watch *Lima (Al Ahli)
*Lima joined Al Ahli only in July but the club is indebted to him for his contribution in their surprising run to the final. The former Benfica marksman made an immediate impact by scoring four times in as many games as Al Ahli pulled off aggregate victories against the likes of Naft Tehran and Al Hilal en route to the final. His goal-scoring form will be the key for the home side as they seek to take the initiative in the first leg.

*Elkeson (Guangzhou Evergrande)
*Elkeson has been a consistent performer as Guangzhou have excelled in the recent three editions. Despite joining the Chinese champions in the middle of the 2013 season, he provided six goals in helping his side to the title. He finished as the team's top-scorer with another six-goal haul last year, although Guangzhou were eliminated by eventual winners Western Sydney Wanderers in the quarter-finals. With a nose for goal, the Brazilian forward is expected to pose a big threat for Al Ahli.

The stat 6 – Al Ahli remained undefeated in all six home games as they stormed to the final. In the process, the Dubai-based giants won and drew three times on home soil to help with through to the final

The words *"I think from what happened over the two games we deserved to qualify (for the final). They don’t give up and they deserve to have the best performance in the club’s history in this kind of AFC Champions League competition. Now we are going to try our best to make the dream real," *Al Ahli coach Cosmin Olaroiu

"This is really a great chance for us to be the champion of Asia a second time. It would be a very significant achievement and everybody in China hopes we can win the AFC Champions League title once more. Everybody has great expectations for us, and we don’t want to let them down," Guangzhou Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi

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