Debutants target Asian crown under Eriksson
Sven-Goran Eriksson landed in China PR three years ago promising success. And the 68-year-old Swedish coach has duly delivered in impressive fashion.
Upon his arrival at Chinese Super League outfit Guangzhou R&F, the former Lazio and England boss told FIFA.com that he aimed to take the newly-promoted side for the upcoming AFC Champions League. While this sounded like mission impossible for even the most optimistic of club supporter, Guangzhou eventually finished third that season and thus secured a playoff place for the following year's continental competition.
And he repeated such a success with Shanghai SIPG last year, taking the rapidly-developing side to their maiden AFC Champions League appearance. Under Eriksson, Shanghai have eased straight into the groove of continental competition, going all way to the last eight.
In a sense, Shanghai have achieved more than expected by reaching the quarter-final stage. But Eriksson has quickly adjusted his aim from being competitive on debut, to potentially winning the trophy.
"We are now competing on three fronts - the AFC Champions League, the C League and FA Cup," he told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "Of course, we are hoping to go further in each campaign. But topping all, we want to win a trophy, whatever competition. And we want to continue to qualify for next year's AFC Champions League."
Hard assignment Having being so used to winning titles with a series of clubs across Europe – his CV includes 18 major trophies, including guiding Lazio to success across several competitions - it is understandable that Eriksson wants to add a first trophy with Shanghai to his bulging trophy cabinet. But with his side trailing big-spending leaders Guangzhou Evergrande by ten points in the league, their best of success seems to be in the Chinese FA Cup or Asian competition.
Should Shanghai win the latter, they will match the rare success of Western Sydney Wanderers two years ago as AFC Champions League winners on debut. While such a feat remains a possibility, they face a hugely challenging task in the knockout stage after being pitted against 2006 winners Jeonbuk Motors.
"The next two matches - home and away - will be really tough for us," Eriksson said. "In fact, every team which have reached this stage should be strong. So no matter which team we play against, it will be no easy matches for us."
Formidable attack Despite their status as the Asian competition's only debutants, Shanghai have lit up the continental stage through their formidable attacking trio of Dario Conca, Elkeson and local hero Wu Lei. Needless to say, Asamoah Gyan is expected to enhance their potency upfront, although the Ghanaian striker has been limited to substitute roles due to his physical condition this season.
Both Conca and Elkeson figured prominently as Guangzhou Evergrande won the AFC Champions League title in 2013. While the imported duo are expected to continue to provide the necessary experiences, the former remains the midfield dynamo and the latter the key predator - Elkeson is the team's second top-scorer in the Asian campaign with four goals.
Of course, many eyes will be on top-scorer Wu who has racked up seven goals - two of which were scored in the 3-0 preliminary playoff victory against Thai giants Muangthong United. Under Eriksson, the 24-year-old emerging star of the China PR national team has been converted to a dynamic winger where he has thrived in his new role, maintaining an impressive goal-scoring rate on both the domestic and Asian stage.
"Jeonbuk are certainly a strong team," Wu recently told local media of their first leg against the K League champions at home on 23 August. "But we don't have any pressure. After reaching the knockout stage, what we aim chiefly is not merely to get results but to showcase our abilities. Our goal is to become champions so we want to do our best."