Ousted in the first round: Title holders Guangzhou Evergrande were forced to abandon early their dream of retaining their Asian Champions League title. Their success in last year’s final was followed by a rude awakening in the group stage of the new season.
Though Guangzhou can still equal second-placed former title holder Urawa Red Diamonds from Japan in the last round of Group H, with five points from five matches, the head-to-head result suggests against the Chinese sealing the end of all their hopes. Two teams from the Chinese Super League, Shandong Luneng and Shanghai SIPG, have so far achieved early qualification for the next round. China‘s professional league enjoys increased attention following the transfer mania during the winter amounting to several hundred million dollars – and also in the Champions League. Jiangsu Suning’s new star-studded squad, including record transfer Alex Teixeira and midfielder Ramires from Chelsea FC, still have to worry but can yet finish top in their group with a victory at Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in Korea in their last match.
Early qualifiers for the next round are from the East Asia/Oceania region -- FC Seoul and debutants FC Sydney, with Urawa Red Diamonds. Two Iranian representatives have already achieved the round of 16 in the four preliminary round groups from Central Asia. Iranian runners-up Tractorsazi Tabriz and Cup champions Zob Ahan Esfahan FC, Champions League finalists in 2010, ascertained their qualification in the fifth round. It’s Tractorsazi’s first qualification at their fourth attempt. The Qatari club Lekhwiya SC also reached the round of 16.
The elimination of China’s serial champions from Guangzhou provided the most headlines. This failure is the club‘s biggest setback under the direction of star coach Luis Felipe Scolari. “That’s very disappointing. We must now focus on defending our title in the Super League. This will be tough enough”, the Brazilian said. Since Scolari took over in June 2015, he remained undefeated until mid-December, won the national championship and the Champions League. Guangzhou lost their first competitive match under Scolari in the semi-final of the club World Cup last December – 3-0 to FC Barcelona.
Scolari had proclaimed winning the club World Cup to be the next big aim of the southern Chinese. But the disappointing results of the new season seem to suspect that Guangzhou are still far away from the top level in club football. But the filthy rich club owners did not wreak their anger on the 2002 World Cup champion coach -- but on president Liu Yongzhou, who was released from his tasks a few days ago. Liu had announced the Champions League title defence was the season’s main goal, and was mainly responsible for selling goalscorer Elkeson to runners-up Shanghai SIPG for 22 million dollars.
Elkeson’s departure has obviously had a major effect on the team, because Guangzhou missed the Brazilian’s goals during the preliminary round. Instead Elkeson contributed hugely to his new club, coached by former England team manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, with four goals in early qualification matches. Together with Argentine Dario Conca Elkeson he is the heart and soul of Shanghai SIPG. Conca also played with Guangzhou until 2013. Both scored during the decisive 3-1 victory against Melbourne to reach the next round. “Shanghai have been dreaming of winning the Champions League since last year, and so far we are on course”, Eriksson said after the match.”I am proud of my team and the club. Our players exactly transcribed what we discussed before the match”, the Swede disclosed.
Two-time Champions League champions Al Ittihad FC from Saudi-Arabia, the only club to successfully defend the title in this competition, still retain worries. Though their last title dates back more than ten years, Ittihad always assert their claim to playing at the very top – nationally as well as internationally. But to qualify Ittihad not only need a win over the Iranian team from Sepahan but also assistance from the other group match on the same evening.