Words by Martin Lowe
The AFC Champions League returns after what seems an eternity of a summer since the group stage culminated back in May in Round 16. We’re now down to the last eight, with the first encounter of Kashiwa Reysol hosting Guangzhou Evergrande pairing two sides who’ll be forgiven for harking back to their last encounter two years previous in contrasting nostalgia.
Back then an all-conquering Guangzhou Evergrande (on their way to the 2013 title) were in bullish form, crushing the Japanese 8-1 over the two legged semi-final. Much has changed in both squads, but sounds already coming out of especially the Reysol camp suggest revenge is at the forefront of their minds.
On paper it looks a top quality match up with both sides going into their semi-final in brilliant domestic form. Kashiwa, after struggling in the first stage of the revamped J.League season, have turned around their campaign over the last couple of months as they chase playoff action. Evergrande unsurprisingly remain dominant in the Chinese Super League as they themselves look ready to take the domestic title down to the wire.
Guangzhou’s form isn’t exactly new given their domestic and continental displays over the last few years but 2015 was always going to be assessed with greater scrutiny due to the change in management. Since Marcello Lippi’s exit from the hot seat at the turn of the year, his successor Fabio Cannavaro on the face of it carried on his predecessor’s good work by leading Evergrande through to the ACL knockout stages before he was unceremoniously sacked over the summer.
Cannavaro’s exit hasn’t yet been fully explained, however issues surrounding his personal life and the way in which the team was being developed on the pitch have been muted as potential reasons for his swift firing. The other reason may well have been the availability of a well sought after replacement, as Luis Felipe Scolari was whisked in to the fold as Evergrande’s new boss. During their quick escalation from second tier make weights to continental super power Evergrande have aspired to a “Galactico” setup of big spending on big names, Scolari’s appointment further pushes home that stereotype.
The players, reportedly devastated by Cannavaro’s exit, however haven’t let it show on the pitch, running unbeaten since Scolari’s appointment including a penalty shootout victory over Bayern Munich no less, in a glitzy money making friendly a few weeks back. The return to ACL action sandwiching the top of the table crunch tie against Shanghai SIPG demands results from Scolari and his expensively assembled team. Nothing other than continental progression and another domestic title will do for the club’s hierarchy.
Last time around Guangzhou crushed Kashiwa through the dominance of their South American contingent. While Muriqui and Dario Conca have made their way out of Guangzhou over the last two years, no lesser names have been brought in to inflict the same damage. Former Tottenham midfielder Paulinho and former Real Madrid creator Robinho (who, quite surprisingly, hasn’t been added to the ACL squad at expense of injured Elkeson) have joined during the last few months purposely to secure the double by the end of the season. In any case, Brazilian Ricardo Goulart is perfectly capable of functioning on his own or cooperating with surprisingly prolific Gao Lin. Goulart himself notched 8 goals in as many games during their dominant early ACL progression.
Given the greater focus is on Guangzhou in the run up to this tie, little has been made of Kashiwa’s turn around in form domestically making this a less than one sided tie in the making. In truth, back when the draw was made hopes were pretty low, this after a subdued start to the domestic season, finishing 14th in the first league stage and the damning loss of influential striker Leandro to fellow J.Leaguers Vissel Kobe.
The sudden rise in form has been put down to the lack of ACL football over the period. During the first part of the season, Kashiwa dealt solidly on the continental stage against the likes of Korean giants Jeonbuk and Suwon but couldn’t translate the form to their domestic season. The key question from the fans is whether this erratic form will return and whether greater importance will be put on the league where they are seriously contending for the end of season playoffs, or on the ACL.
While Guangzhou play only once (all be it the crunch title decider v. SIPG) between both ACL legs, Kashiwa are in for a tough ride of four matches in the meantime including a cup double header against Leandro’s Kobe. This alone could help or hinder either side’s chances, given the lessons of earlier in the campaign Reysol haven’t exactly excelled with a packed timetable, however riding the crest of a wave they’re currently experiencing, they could prove a stiffer opposition to Guangzhou than many are giving them credit for.