A fifty-fourth minute goal by Brazilian striker Elkeson was the difference between Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao and Dubai-based Al-Ahli on the night, but Guangzhou’s second Asian Champions League title in three years confirms what many fans of Asian football already knew: Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao are currently the dominant force in Asian football.
Guangzhou Evergrande’s ACL Win Could Spark Chinese Dominance
Guangzhou Evergrande started off their 2015 campaign by finishing top of what could have been considered the ‘group of death’ in this year’s competition. They had to overcome 2013 ACL finalists FC Seoul and 2014 ACL winners Western Sydney Wanderers, along with Japanese side Kashima Antlers. Despite losing twice, they finished top of the group with ten points. En route to the final, they were given a scare in the first knockout round when they lost to South Korean side Seongnam FC in the first leg, before winning the second leg two-nil to progress to the quarter-finals.
Their quarter-final matches went a lot more smoothly, Japanese side Kashiwa Reysol were finished off early on in the first leg, going three-nil down after just fifty-eight minutes of that match, thanks in part to a spectacular free-kick by former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Paulinho.
The semi-final against Gamba Osaka was a much tighter affair. Gamba’s away goal from the first leg meant that a one-nil victory would have put them in the final at Guangzhou’s expense, but the Japanese side left it too late before mounting a serious attack on Guangzhou’s goal, and meekly went out of the competition after a goalless draw in Osaka’s ageing and soon-to-be-replaced Expo ’70 Stadium.
The first leg of the final was also goalless, but it was a moment of sheer quality that gave Guangzhou the only goal of the second leg. Brazilian striker Elkeson received a pass from Zhong Leng in the middle of the box, used his first touch to skillfully nutmeg the Al-Ahli defender standing behind him, then quickly spun past and flicked the ball past the goalkeeper with the outside of his boot to give Guangzhou the lead. They held on, and picked up their second Asian Champions League trophy in the space of three years
Although quite a number of clubs have won the competition twice, only South Korean side Pohang Steelers have been champions of Asia more times than Guangzhou Evergrande. The Chinese side are also favourites to retain the trophy next season. Domestically, Guangzhou have dominated the game, winning the Chinese Super League every season since 2011. League and AFC rules mean that Chinese teams can only contain a few foreign superstars, with the majority of the squad being made up of Chinese nationals.
Guangzhou have done a good job of hoovering up the domestic talent; nine of the players who were in China’s squad for the recent match against Hong Kong came from Guangzhou Evergrande’s ranks. Their team also contains arguably China’s best two players: striker Gao Lin; and national team captain Zheng Zhi, who won the AFC Asian Footballer of the Year award back in 2013 and is also a contender for it this season.
Their foreign players are certainly not a bunch of has-beens either, with Paulinho, Ricardo Goulart, and former Real Madrid, Manchester City, and AC Milan striker Robinho all in-or-around the Brazilian national team over the past two years. Italian striker Alessandro Diamenti is also on Guangzhou’s books but is currently on loan at English Premier League side Watford. As well as big-name players, Guangzhou have had some big-hitting managers; current boss Luis Felipe Scolari and former boss Marcelo Lippi have both won the FIFA World Cup in their decorated careers.
Although the national teams of Japan and South Korea are a long way ahead of China at the moment, most of the best Japanese and Korean players play in Europe. Increasingly though, the ‘best-of-the-rest’ are being targeted by moneyed Chinese and Middle-Eastern clubs who can offer higher wages than those available in the J-League and K-League. Korean international Kim Young-Gwon is a perfect example of this; Guangzhou Evergrande paid $2.5 million for the defender which is a reasonably large fee for a player who, at that time, hadn’t played outside of Japan. Nam Tae-Hee is another example, playing his football for Qatari club Lekhiwa. In fact, only four outfield players from Korea’s squad for their November game against Laos currently play their football domestically.
The financial power of Chinese clubs was felt acutely by FC Seoul two years ago. After losing on away goals to Guangzhou in the 2013 ACL final, Seoul found two of their key players, midfielder Ha Dae-Sung, and Montenegrin striker Dejan Damjanović moving to Beijing Guoan. Midway through this season, China League One side Hebei China Fortune poached at-that-time K-League top goalscorer Edu from Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, the former Schalke 05 man helped Hebei to promotion. Even though Jeonbuk brought in reinforcements to replace him, they must be wondering whether he could have made the difference in their ACL quarter-final defeat to Gamba Osaka.
So far, China’s spending power has only got them so far. The lower quality of the domestic footballers compared with other Asian nations has been so great that only Guangzhou have managed to bridge that particular gap. Beijing Guoan were the next best placed Chinese side in this year’s ACL. They lost in the first knockout round to Jeonbuk, with Edu scoring the winning goal for the Korean side, one of his last for the club. China’s other two representatives both failed to get out of the group stages.
Guangzhou Evergrande are expected to do well in next year’s Asian Champions League. Domestically, this season was the first in recent years that they were actually challenged for the title, with Shanghai SIPG finishing only two points behind them. Managed by former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson, and with a squad containing a sprinkling of Chinese internationals along with star players Dario Conca and Asamoah Gyan, they certainly have the potential to compete in the Asian Champions League. As China’s domestic players improve, it is quite possible that the spending power of their domestic clubs could make Guangzhou Evergrande’s two ACL titles the start of a long period of Chinese dominance over Asian football.